How to teach Hong Kong history – a modest proposal for open-mindedness and critical thinking
Stefano Mariani says Hong Kong is uniquely placed to take a balanced approach to history that faces the contradictions of the past and questions dominant narratives
Much has been written of late on reforms to the history curriculum in Hong Kong. More ink, still, has been spilled, and more spleen vented, to fuel the interminable history of wars between Japan, China and the Koreas.
Against a backdrop of pseudo-historical assertions aimed at buttressing geopolitical claims, Beijing and other regional powers have sought to entrench both at home and abroad their historical narratives, which are presented as indisputable truth.
In Hong Kong, our constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of conscience and expression vest us with a unique responsibility to provide a platform within China for a more balanced approach, which treats history as a serious academic discipline and not as nationalist mythology. That means teaching history not only to instil a given set of facts, but to provide students with the critical tools to evaluate claims.
Because history informs a society’s understanding of the past, and so shapes the future, it is crucial to distinguish true history from propaganda. Consider, for instance, the oft-repeated claim that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. Hong Kong was, in fact, alienated to Great Britain in 1842 by the Qing Dynasty under a treaty valid in customary international law, as it applied at that time. If China were so minded, Hong Kong, or any other part of the territory of the People’s Republic, could likewise be legally alienated to any other state. National borders are not, and have never been, fixed.
To those who would cry “colonialism” when the Opium Wars are mentioned, I would reply that the conflicts between the Qing – “China” then was a geographic expression and the imperial rulers referred to themselves by their dynastic name – and the British was in reality a conflict between empires.
Contemporary China is the product of successive waves of military expansion, colonisation and settlement. Most dynasties were imperialist and expansionist. The Qing, who roughly established the frontiers of the current People’s Republic, vastly enlarged the domain of the Ming through military conquest. Like the British empire, it was an institution run by and for the benefit of a tiny elite. To understand that essential fact is to cast doubt on the prevailing official narrative of Hong Kong having been seized as a “victim” of Western colonialism.
It is thus curious that some pro-establishment legislators would seek to “decolonise” the place names of Hong Kong, because there was no single process of “colonisation”.
Watch: How Hong Kong street names reflect the city’s maritime history
If current and future generations of students in Hong Kong are to comprehend their relationship with the British colonial past, Hong Kong’s place in China’s history and China’s place in global history, they must do so from a position of openness.
History should be a method of inquiry, where different perspectives are examined and understood in their context. To propagate mythology instead of history is to imbue citizens with a sense of grievance and entitlement and so sow the seeds of conflict. There are controversies on which reasonable people can disagree, and that diversity in opinion is a necessary precondition to a healthy historical debate. We should certainly aim to prevent a polarisation of historical positions across political lines.
While few in Hong Kong support independence, when Andy Chan Ho-Tin spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Britain’s enduring legacy in Hong Kong, and his resentment of the tone-deafness of the central government on local issues, he expressed views that are held by some in the city, but increasingly marginalised in the “official” narrative of Hong Kong history.
At a time when Hong Kong faces an uncertain future, and the “handover generation” struggles to find its place, a modest proposal would be to promote at all levels of education a mature understanding of our past, with all its difficulties and contradictions.
Stefano Mariani is a tax lawyer. The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author