Calling 1997 event ‘handover’ belies ‘substance of momentous occasion’, Hong Kong No 2 official Matthew Cheung says
Chief secretary points to earlier article by the Post and defends government’s move to erase word from its website
Using the word “handover” to describe Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 “does not accurately reflect the substance or description of this momentous historical occasion” and falls short of official guidelines on terminology, the city’s No 2 official said on Thursday.
In a letter to the Post published online on Thursday, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung defended the decision by the government’s Protocol Division to remove any mention of a “handover of sovereignty” from its website. Cheung said it was “entirely appropriate” to do so and “not rewriting history at all”.
“The term ‘handover’ was purely a convenient term coined in the run-up to 1997,” he added.
Text on one of the site’s pages had earlier read: “Since the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997, a number of foreign state or government leaders have visited Hong Kong.”
After the changes, it began simply “Since July 1, 1997”.
The change followed a row over terminology, after the Education Bureau’s external textbook review group said that describing China as “taking back” Hong Kong in 1997 was problematic.
Hong Kong officials and departments have been using “handover” interchangeably with the phrase “return to China” to describe the former colony’s switch from British to Chinese rule. The event from June 30 to July 1, 1997 was at the time called the “handover ceremony”.
The government’s Public Records Service, which archives official documents, still labels the ceremony on July 1 that year as the “handover”, and its official 1997 yearbook also describes the time period that comes after as “post-handover”.
But Cheung, in his letter, referenced a circular to all civil servants issued by the chief secretary’s office’s Administration Wing in February 2015, which touched on the correct use of terminology, and stated that all departments “should abide” by it.
One guideline in the circular concerned the handover, and civil servants were reminded to use the phrase “return to China/the Motherland” or “resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong”.
“Thus, it is entirely appropriate for the Protocol Division to remove any non-official terminology in the course of updating its website,” Cheung said.
He added that the government was seeking to ensure official correspondence and publications were accurate. These had to consistently reflect that Hong Kong “was established and operates under the Basic Law”, Cheung said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.
Since 2016, senior officials have described the 1997 event as a “handover” on at least four occasions, according to past press releases and statements.
In January, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu used the word three times when responding to a lawmaker’s written inquiry on military land use.
In January 2016, Cheung himself used the word when he was secretary for labour and welfare.
“It is very important to mention that this is the first time, after the 1997 handover, that the government has really proactively taken up the issue of retirement protection,” he said at the time, during a press meeting.
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A year later, Cheung, who was by then chief secretary, used the word again at a media conference for the government’s policy address. He reiterated his earlier statement: “This is the first time ever after the 1997 handover that the government really looked at the whole [of retirement protection] in a very serious fashion and in a comprehensive manner.”