A depiction of the Battle of Amoy, fought between British and Chinese forces during the First Opium War. Image: Getty Images
On Reflection
by Rana Mitter
On Reflection
by Rana Mitter

In Hong Kong, China should learn from India’s healthy attitude to the British Empire

  • Empire’s critics often fail to understand that imperial subjects are not passive recipients of coercion. They can make imperial structures their own
  • The structures of British rule in Hong Kong – its legal system and free media – have become a way of life not as foreign intrusions, but as another way of being Chinese
The ghosts of empire keep appearing across the globe. This summer, Britain was rocked by the Black Lives Matter movement, members of which pulled down the statue in Bristol of the slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the river. Next to fall may well be the statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College, Oxford.
In Tokyo, this month’s 75th anniversary of the end of World War II was marred by some prominent politicians paying respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where remembrance is held for leaders who defended Japan’s wartime empire.

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And even Hong Kong has recently seen the temporary return of colonial symbols, when political protesters last year unfurled the old colonial flag that was retired at the end of British rule in 1997. Nobody runs empires any more, or at least not officially. Yet decades after formal imperialism has come to an end, the legacy of empire still shapes politics across Asia and Europe, usually in terms defined by rhetoric rather than the nuances of history.
The British Hong Kong colonial flag makes an appearance at a protest in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Edmond So

In the summer of 2020, the debate over empire in Britain has concentrated on the question of whether it was good, bad or something in between. At one level, the question doesn’t really make sense. Empires depend on coercive power; they are not republics, nation-states or democracies and by definition depend on inequality. Defenders of the British Empire argue that it brought good things in its wake, such as rule of law (as if conquered countries had no legal system of their own) or railways (as if countries that resisted conquest could not have bought or built railways). Those arguments have a flavour of the old philosophical conundrum: if you rob a bank and give the money to an orphanage, does that excuse the robbery?

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The ethics of empire cannot be understood without understanding the nature of power. That is the first principle that needs to be understood when judging empire.

But empire’s critics often fail to understand something crucial: that imperial subjects are not passive recipients of coercion. They can change imperial structures, resist them, and make them their own.

British rule in Hong Kong existed because of imperial violence: Opium wars which led to an undoubted violation of Chinese sovereignty. British rule in Hong Kong was marked over the years by racial discrimination and little attempt to create democracy (although the latter gap was in part because figures such as Zhou Enlai secretly warned Britain as early as the 1950s not to introduce democracy into the colony).

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Yet the structures of British rule also included a robust legal system, increasingly free media, and structures such as the Independent Commission Against Corruption (a welcome colonial innovation to deal with the darker side of colonial rule). All these have become part of the structure of Hong Kong’s way of life not as foreign intrusions, but as another way of being Chinese. It makes no more sense to argue that Hong Kong’s colonial legacy is purely foreign, or irrelevant to Chinese identity, than it does to suggest that China’s constitution should be abolished because its first iteration was debated by a Manchu court in the late Qing dynasty.

Yet much of the current Chinese anger about “foreign” interference derives its intellectual firepower from arguments about “imperialism” that would not be out of place in the Chinese political language of a hundred years ago.

A depiction of The Siege of Mooltan, 1849, part of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Photo: Getty Images
Not all former colonised states have a difficult relationship with the colonial legacy. India might be the most important exception. There’s no doubt that India’s political culture derives its legitimacy from the moment of independence in 1947 (along with its sister state Pakistan).

Yet overall, “imperialism” was never a core element of the political debate in independent India, and it isn’t now. Having fought with vigour to end British rule, the former imperial power is generally treated with a mixture of affection and disregard by India’s ruling elites.

There is still a nostalgia for India in parts of British public life (expressed in part by the continuing idea that post- Brexit Britain will do a major trade deal with India, a prospect echoed by no major Indian politician).

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But the former colonial power doesn’t really figure as a bogeyman in the minds of any serious Indian strategist. New Delhi worries about Islamabad and Beijing and tries to keep in with Washington and Tokyo. It doesn’t spend much time thinking about the days of empire, or being resentful about them. India’s current political culture has many disturbing aspects, including a growing sectarianism. But it has achieved a healthy mixture of fierce pride in India’s seizure of its own independence, and a willingness not to let its politics be shaped by resentment at the real injustices of the past. China too needs to understand the importance of history, but not let itself be defined by it.

Rana Mitter’s most recent book is China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (2020)