Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Why are Westerners so keen on calling China a colonial power?

  • In a case of projecting for most Westerners, imperialism is the worst historical version of themselves with all their genocides, exploitation, slavery, racism, criminalities, wars and occupations

Contemporary China has generated the most amount of wealth in the shortest period of time for more people than any country or empire in human history. I believe this is a statistical fact. However, to what extent the Chinese communist leaders can take credit for the achievement since the country’s economic openings in the late 1970s is in dispute.

Nevertheless, the communists must have done something right. Otherwise, the country would have been in ruin, rather than being the largest or second-largest economy in the world, depending on how you measure it.

On a much smaller scale and within a much longer time frame, though some Brits and pro-British Hongkongers never fail to remind us at every opportunity, Hong Kong went from being “a fishing village” and “a barren rock” to becoming one of the world’s richest cities during the 156 years of colonial rule.

To what extent the British imperialists could take credit, I think it’s fair to say, is or should be a matter of dispute. However, they surely had done something right, otherwise the city would have been in ruin, rather than being so rich.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Britain's Queen Elizabeth during a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, London, in 2015. Photo: AP

(At this point, someone will inevitably jump up and scream according to what I call the Mao law of internet debate about China: “Don’t you know how many millions and millions of Chinese people Mao Zedong killed?” Sure, but remind me how many millions and millions of colonised people the British imperialists killed and enslaved in the names of their kings and queens? Let’s just skip all that for now.)

I was led to this reflection on Chinese communism and British colonialism by an opinion piece in the Financial Times that carries the provocative title: “China’s ‘recolonisation’ of Hong Kong could soon be complete.”

Following another debate rule, this one set by the late William Safire, the great conservative columnist of The New York Times, you should never, ever, write a column to debate another columnist’s column; or defend your own column against another columnist’s criticism. That’s just bad taste and poor manners, and it’s lazy.

So, I am not going to debate the FT piece. Rather, I only wish to consider here what “colonisation” and other English words associated with this loaded term mean when it comes to Hong Kong.

What ‘Hong Kong is not China’ really means

Of course, this formulation is nothing new. I typed in a Google search for “Hong Kong & recolonisation” and it came back with 122,000 entries. Some entries say the city was “recolonised” after 1997. Some said later. A few like the FT say it’s now being recolonised. Only now? Does that mean the Chinese communists had at least respected, for 20-odd years, the guarantee of 50 years of no change? You take your pick.

But the issue is topical. Since the introduction of the national security law in the summer, Hong Kong has become a focus of Western governments and the foreign media in their dealings with China. There is no question that Beijing is tightening control over the city; the only argument is over whether it has no other option or that it really shouldn’t have done it.

But is China thereby behaving as a colonial power? Maybe you agree with an (in) famous protest banner that was widely used last year: “Hong Kong is not China.” Maybe you were one of the many protesters and rioters who waved it. If you truly believe that, then yes, you are perfectly entitled to claim China is (re) colonising the city. In a fundamental sense, at a gut level, you think Hong Kong is a separate entity from the rest of China, international and constitutional laws and treaties be damned!

If you truly believe that and act on it, I fully respect your belief and commitment. But don’t get me wrong; I would want you jailed at the first opportunity if you ever commit a secessionist or separatist crime.

Hong Kong supporters hold a banner reading “Hong Kong is not China” as security members try to take it away during the men's football match between Hong Kong and China at a football match in Busan in 2019. Photo: AFP

But why are foreigners, especially Westerners, so keen on characterising China as a colonial power, not just over Hong Kong but in other regions such as Africa and South America? After all, China can do all sorts of bad or evil things without being a colonial power. No one ever accuses the devil himself of being a colonialist!

Quite simply, for many if not most Westerners, colonialism/imperialism is the worst historical version of themselves with all their genocides, slavery, exploitation, racism, criminalities, wars and occupations. If the 19th century was that of Western imperialism, the 20th century was that of decolonisation. Hong Kong, though, is that very rare instance of success and benefit for the colonised in the long and bloody history of British decolonisation.

Western children are taught about the crimes and atrocities committed by their elders, at least some of them, some of the time. Imperialism/colonialism is bad and evil, period. What better way than to project this evil label on that Eternal Other, China, so repulsive and irredeemable in so many ways?

That’s labelling that all Westerners will understand and feel at a gut level because of their own historical guilt. And that’s how you mobilise public opinion to prepare for confrontation or containment with an “imperialist” China.

There is just one problem. However bad you may think China is, it is not a colonial power.