Peter Kammerer
SCMP Columnist
Shades Off
by Peter Kammerer
Shades Off
by Peter Kammerer

Patriotism should not lead to a single, Beijing-approved view of Hong Kong history

  • In our attempt to bring Hong Kong’s account of its own history in line with the mainland Chinese version, there needs to be room to accommodate different points of view

History is fluid, being shaped over time by research and interpretation. A saying that it is “written by the victors” is also partly true.

Knowing that should have prepared me for a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History. Still, I was surprised to read in the section on British colonial rule that “through three unequal treaties, Britain succeeded in illegally occupying the entire area of Hong Kong”.

It can’t be disputed that the Qing dynasty was in a weak bargaining position in the face of foreign pressure in the 19th century; two wars waged – the second with a combined military force from Britain and France – were lost and, each time, territory was conceded in treaties. That was how Hong Kong Island became part of the British empire in 1842, and the southern part of the Kowloon peninsula in 1860.

A third pact in 1898 gave it control of the New Territories. Negotiating from a weak position can be interpreted as “uneven”, but is an agreement that leads to the handing over of territory “illegal occupation”?

Children display a placard showing a ‘Timeline of the invasions by Great Britain into the whole Hong Kong territory’ and the unequal treaties that followed, in front of Beijing’s Revolutionary History Museum, during a patriotism-building activity organised by their elementary school on October 24, 1996, ahead of the 1997 handover. Photo: AFP
Yet this is how one draft text book for the revamped high school liberal studies course, renamed “citizenship and social development”, portrays events. It describes the end of colonial rule on July 1, 1997, as Beijing “resuming the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong” rather than a “handover”, as previous editions taught.

That is in keeping with the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative that, despite the treaties, China never gave up sovereignty of Hong Kong because the pacts were illegal and violated international conventions.

Beijing’s interpretation of history is markedly different from the West’s viewpoint. Contrary to Western teaching that the Japanese surrender on September 3, 1945, was the result of American-led Allied naval battles and air strikes that culminated in atomic bombings, many Chinese students learn that a more essential reason for the defeat of the Japanese imperial forces and fascism in Asia was land fighting in China.


They are told that Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops refused to adequately cooperate with rival Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in fighting a common enemy and lost support due to government corruption; the West’s version is that Chiang’s army did most of the fighting and was substantially weakened and in a losing position when civil war resumed after Japan’s capitulation.

The power of victors to write history is why I was largely unaware at school in the 1970s of the horrendous massacres white settlers carried out against indigenous people in Australia from the late 18th century onwards that dispossessed land, wiped out generations and split families; only with the 200th anniversary of British settlement in 1988 did substantial revision and efforts for reconciliation begin.

An indigenous Australian couple react as Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd delivers an apology to the Aboriginal people for past mistreatment, at the Australian Parliament in Canberra on February 13, 2008. Rudd told parliament that past policies of assimilation, under which aboriginal children were taken from their families to be brought up in white households, were a stain on the nation’s soul. Photo: Reuters

My father, who grew up in Nazi Germany and was obliged to be a member of Adolf Hitler’s youth movement, was convinced the dictator was alive and well in Argentina long after the US and its allies claimed he had died on April 30, 1945, when his corpse was burned after he shot himself.

Perspectives of history differ as a result of education, experience and political influence and outlook. With Beijing’s version of events seemingly being presented to Hongkongers as the only correct account, there is understandable concern among some parents, teachers and academics about children being “brainwashed”. A number worry that the national security law could be used to stifle discussion.

Hongkongers have huge gaps in their understanding and knowledge of mainland China as a result of British colonial rule. The sides developed differently and were separated for a long time, leading to some people not being open to the ways of the other.


With Beijing speaking of the need for patriotism, it is unlikely students will be afforded a variety of perspectives. Yet it is essential that history is presented in as balanced a way as possible by offering different points of view. Without that, there is a risk of furthering anger, hatred and, worst of all, extremism.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post