As Hong Kong localists mine Britain’s diplomatic archives, will they unleash a Pandora’s box of problems?

  • Tai Hing-shing says young Hongkongers’ efforts to study declassified British documents are commendable, and could help Hong Kong know its history better. But it is dangerous to rush to rewrite history, and imprudent to regard diplomatic cables as fact before cross-checking them
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 7:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 7:07am

In traditional Chinese culture, the greatest role of history is to connect with real life and serve reality. Take Sima Guang’s monumental chronicle of Chinese history, in which the author summed up lessons for rulers to learn from. The Song emperor Shenzong said of the work, “A view of the past aids governance,” hence its title, Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government.

In Hong Kong, there have been social movements and political protests large and small in recent years and historical studies of governance here during the British era have also sprouted like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, in the hope of finding a new use for history. Already, some localists have formed a “2018 London files mining team” to sort out 300 declassified British government files on Hong Kong at Britain’s National Archives.

Leaving aside their politics, the young Hongkongers should be given credit for ardently organising and studying the declassified British official documents. First, discussions on Hong Kong history in academic circles here have been one-sided for many years, and most of them start from a nationalist perspective. It’s a good thing that young people are trying to break through the traditional nationalist framework, rewrite Hong Kong history and “let a hundred flowers bloom”.

Second, the unsealing of first-hand information in the secret British files means that there is a lot of valuable material for historical research. It helps academics expand their research and the public deepen their understanding of Hong Kong’s history and identity.

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In particular, many of the documents were written by diplomatic officials who had the privilege of access to social and political figures in Britain, China and Hong Kong, were in communication with decision-makers in three governments, and could clearly explain details of the formulation and implementation of previous British policies on Hong Kong. If the files are put in order, they can present the truth to the public, who might otherwise be confused by fake news.

However, these sensitive documents may not fulfil any function beyond this. If the emphasis on official documents becomes an obsession, to the extent that diplomatic archives become the only source of historical research, there will be many drawbacks.

As British diplomat Henry Wotton once said, “An ambassador is an honest man who is sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Those who engage in diplomacy cannot be expected to completely divulge their motives. In communication with outsiders, they deliberately create one smokescreen after another. In other words, the authenticity of information given and received by diplomats through their communication channels must be carefully confirmed.

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Last year, the British archives declassified a raft of diplomatic cables from 1989, including one the ambassador to Beijing, Alan Ewen Donald, sent to London the day after the June 4 incident. He wrote that a member of the Chinese State Council had informed the British that the Chinese military had killed at least 10,000 people in the crackdown. After the cable was made public, it received extensive coverage in the Hong Kong media.

I dare not say Donald’s cable was inaccurate. However, if one applies common sense, fake news would have proliferated in the tense political climate then, and the credibility of the intelligence collected by British diplomats in Beijing does need to be carefully evaluated. The media must also be extremely rigorous in the publication of such material. In the absence of sufficient proof, a document cannot be easily regarded as fact.

In historical research, it is necessary to pay attention to official information, but also to verify the information from multiple parties, especially in the case of foreign official documents. Take Shen Zhihua, a Chinese expert on the Korean peninsula who used Soviet archives to publish seminal works on the Korean war. Not many people know that he also studied American documents and gained rare access to Chinese archives to carry out cross-checks.

Of course, for well-known reasons, the Chinese government has opened far fewer of its archives to the outside world. But it should speed up the opening of its archives. Scholars of Hong Kong history can only refer to the British archives if the Chinese do not open theirs, which means the British have more say in recounting Sino-British confrontations over political events in Hong Kong – and the Hong Kong localists have more ammunition.

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Let me give two recent examples. First, Britain has declassified a 1987 file on Li Ka-shing, revealing a secret letter to London in which Lord Derwent, then managing director of Hutchison Whampoa (Europe), pointed out that the Hong Kong tycoon was “violently anti-communist”. Second, the localists have disclosed a 1992 document in which a British representative to the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, Alan Paul, wrote about meeting future Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying.

In recent years, news of Li has often been about whether he is pulling his capital out of China. At times like these, the revelation of the Li file naturally leads to a heated discussion in Hong Kong. However, Lord Derwent was just a taipan of Li’s company. How deep was his contact with Li? Was he right about Li? For historical researchers, these are questions that surely need to be taken into consideration.

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As for the Leung document, the localists have seized on Paul’s analysis of the then would-be chief executive and mocked Leung for leaning towards Beijing since the 1990s. But they seem to be projecting their emotions onto Hong Kong history.

The biggest danger of the localists’ research into the declassified documents may be their lack of objectivity, as they rashly refer to the files without analysing them in depth, or hastily find documents supporting their preconceived notions so they can publicise them in the media to achieve their political goals.

What is history? According to the saying oft quoted by sceptical young people in Hong Kong, “History is written by the winners.” But don’t forget another popular adage: “History is a little girl anyone can dress up.” Playing dress-up with history seems to be an old trick in the localists’ book, and I have to say it is quite regrettable.

Tai Hing-shing is an independent political commentator and international relations scholar. This article is translated from Chinese