City Weekend

The contentious history of Hong Kong’s bauhinia flower flag

  • Flags have played an integral part in Hong Kong’s transformation through the decades
  • More than 4,000 designs were put forward for city’s post-handover flag design but all were rejected
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 10:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 2:14pm

Every morning, two flags, not one, fly over Hong Kong – China’s five-starred red flag and Hong Kong’s bauhinia flower flag are raised outside government buildings and transport hubs. The national flag flies over that of the city, a symbolic representation of “one country, two systems”, the governing principle under which Beijing allows Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.

This phenomenon is not unusual for Hong Kong, a region that has never flown an independent flag, but where flags – whether colonial, regional, nautical or as symbols of protest – have played an integral role in politics and history.

Hong Kong’s current flag, a white bauhinia flower against a red backdrop, was first flown at the handover of the city from Britain to China in 1997, when British Hong Kong’s “dragon and lion” flag was lowered and the new bauhinia flag raised beside China’s national flag.

“The flag was a concession to Hong Kong’s autonomy,” said Joseph Bosco, adjunct associate professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “China doesn’t have provincial flags; only Hong Kong and Macau are allowed to have their own flags.”

How the bauhinia flower became Hong Kong’s emblem

The specially mandated flag is less than 30 years old, but has a contentious history. In recent years, anti-China protesters have marched through the city streets waving the colonial flag, while others transformed the petals on the flag into yellow umbrellas, the symbol of democracy for Hong Kong.

Which flag, the city’s or the national one, truly represents Hong Kong?

The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, allows the city to fly its own flag, but China’s national flag must take “a position of prominence”. In most public spaces and government buildings, the national flag’s pole stands higher than the one for Hong Kong’s. On ships registered in Hong Kong, both flags must be shown, with China’s directly above Hong Kong’s.

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There are exceptions. Hong Kong athletes compete under the bauhinia flag at international sporting events, waving the emblem at opening ceremonies and displaying it on their uniforms as they will compete against – not with – mainland China. But when Hong Kong athletes win medals, China’s national anthem March of the Volunteers is played, as Hong Kong’s flag hangs behind them.

Where did the Hong Kong flag get its design?

The Chinese government originally tried to crowdsource the design for Hong Kong’s new flag, calling for submissions after the 1984 agreement for the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

More than 4,000 designs for flags and emblems were put forward, and successive meetings in mainland China whittled down the list, but all submissions were eventually rejected. Three designers were asked to submit proposals instead.

The final design centred on an image of the local bauhinia flower, a colonial Hong Kong emblem, created by Hong Kong-based, Shanghai-born architect Tao Ho. Ho chose a red background and incorporated one star into each of the five Bauhinia petals, a direct reference to the red background and five stars on China’s national flag, which represent the relationship of the people to the Communist Party.

The close connection between the two flags has made the bauhinia flag a target of controversy in recent years, as protesters against Chinese rule have rejected its design.

“The flag is visually unique, a clear contrast to its previous colonial flag. Yet, its symbol of independence is undermined by visible emblems of China found inside the very petals meant to represent Hong Kong,” said cognitive linguist Adrian Lou, who has studied Hong Kong’s protest symbols.

“The imagery is meant to be obvious, and so challenging the symbols of the flag is needed if one wants to protest China’s rule.”


Do China’s national flag regulations apply to Hong Kong?

Respecting the national and city flag is a matter of law in Hong Kong.

Desecrating either flag by “burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling or trampling” is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and HK$50,000 in fines in Hong Kong. Under China’s national flag law, which was updated last year, such acts are punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, criminal detention, public surveillance or deprivation of political rights.

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There have been several instances of protesters in Hong Kong publicly burning the regional or national flags, with cases resulting in imprisonment for weeks or months, but not the maximum penalty. Last year, Hong Kong lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai was charged with flag desecration after upending several small China and Hong Kong flags at a 2016 Legislative Council meeting. Cheng was forced to pay a fine of HK$5,000.

What other flags have been used in Hong Kong?

As a port city, Hong Kong’s waters have a long history of naval ensigns and nautical flags used by ships to communicate sovereignty and intent. But after Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842, a host of different images were used on flags representing Hong Kong.

“No one could really agree on what, in principle, the flag should be about. In part because, it wasn’t all that clear in general what colonial flags ought to show or why,” Hong Kong maritime historian Stephen Davies said.

Different flags from the period included a British and Chinese man meeting on shore, with ships from both sides in the background; the “pearl of the orient” in the paws of a lion in a reference to Hong Kong’s nickname; and the naval crown. It was not until 1959 that one design was agreed upon: a blue flag with a British Union flag in one corner, with a dragon and lion seal on the other.

It was that version of the British Hong Kong flag that was revived by protesters, one of many others waved on city streets in recent years – including even the Catalonia flag, flown in solidarity for regional independence from Spain – that have been used by local groups to push back against China and one country, two systems.