Hong Kong’s frustration with Beijing is no excuse for nostalgia for the British empire

Brian YS Wong says Hongkongers who miss British rule should be mindful of how its other colonies, from India to states in the Middle East and Africa, suffered so that Britain could prosper

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 5:49pm

There is a curious undercurrent in some narratives by pro-democracy and anti-Chinese Communist Party activists in Hong Kong: nostalgia for the days when Hong Kong was a British colony.

The rosy picture that youths – often no older than three or four at the time of the handover – have of the colonial era is perhaps less a celebration of British colonialism than a radical expression of discontent towards Beijing’s perceived interference with Hong Kong’s autonomy.

In distinct juxtaposition, across both Western liberal democracies and post-colonial states in Africa, the Middle East and India, there have been calls for a comprehensive addressing of colonialism’s legacy.

British colonial rule indubitably benefited Hong Kong, through measures ranging from establishing key infrastructure and the rule of law, to propelling the city’s economic miracle in the 1960s and leading its world-class civil service. Yet, just as we remember the immense gains Hong Kong derived under British rule, we must also not neglect the wider, darker sides of colonial rule.

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The British empire was constructed to benefit the colonial state through resource extraction and extortion of its colonies. From the transatlantic and intra-empire slave trade to the forced expropriation of land and natural resources, including in India, Egypt and South Africa, the dominant economic policy across colonies was accumulation of wealth for the colonial administrators and British citizens.

Economic benefits materialising for these colonies were largely side effects. The opportunity costs incurred by stolen wealth, land, property and technology fundamentally disrupted the pre-colonial economies.

India’s share of the world economy was 23 per cent before its colonisation – as large as the rest of Europe; by the time India acquired independence, it was less than 4 per cent.

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More appalling, perhaps, was the track record of violence under the empire, employed as a means of stifling potential opposition. The most chilling feature of British governance in many areas was blatant disregard for the lives for whom they were responsible. Millions of lives were lost due to major famines in India and Ireland, brought about by unforgivable negligence in policymaking.

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In 1950, British Malaya set up detainment camps for over 500,000 individuals identified as affiliated with the “communist insurgency” – nearly all were ethnic Chinese. In Kenya, 1.5 million people were imprisoned in concentration camps after the crackdown on the Mau Mau Uprising. The British exit from India was marked by hastily implemented partition, leading to decades of conflict between Pakistan and India.

We must recognise that such atrocities and wrongs cannot be brushed away as “par for the course” or acceptable trade-offs in exchange for the prosperity and growth that colonialism afforded some in former colonies today.

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Surely, you may argue, while British rule had been generally unjust, it was overwhelmingly positive for the development of Hong Kong? Yet, reality is not so simple. The benefits that “better off” colonies, such as Hong Kong, acquired from Britain were largely built from the blood, sweat and labour of their less fortune counterparts elsewhere; to reminisce and glorify the colonial project in full, therefore, would be to posit that such atrocities are justified because we are now better off.

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Just as, in the trolley dilemma, we would find it hard to stomach throwing a very fat man under the metaphorical trolley to save two or three strangers, presumably we would be uncomfortable with the proposition that the egregious acts of the empire were justified because some of us have benefited.

Given the legitimate frustrations of some Hongkongers with the political status quo, they would be better off constructing a positive vision of their own, as opposed to resorting to colonial nostalgia as a political weapon. Hongkongers should be wary of unconsciously whitewashing the problematic aspects of the empire to co-opt the colonial era as a discursive tool against inept governance.

We owe it to the victims of colonialism to recognise the colonial project for what it is – a scheme that brought incidental benefits through crimes against humanity.

Brian YS Wong is an MPhil student of politics (political theory) at Wolfson College, Oxford