The truth about British rule in Hong Kong
Tom Fowdy

Editor's Note: Tom Fowdy is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain, and the United States. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

A good film to watch from a Chinese perspective is "Chasing the Dragon" – a Mandarin language film focused on the 1960s in Hong Kong.

It details the story of Ng Sek ho (Donnie Yen), initially a refugee from Chinese mainland, eager to escape poverty and political turmoil for the bright lights and booming prosperity of the British Hong Kong colony.

However, Ng finds himself at the bottom of a ruthless and hierarchical system, facing against the main antagonist of the movie, a corrupt and brutal British police chief called Ernest Hunter. Sek Ho, however, ultimately rises to become a powerful crime lord in the city.

The film is of cultural significance because it demonstrates to foreign and younger viewers a depiction of Hong Kong of which they might not have otherwise understood.

On September 15, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside of the British consulate general in the city demanding that the United Kingdom uphold its agreements pertaining to the Sino-British declaration. Demonstrators, viewing the country as a savior, waved colonial era flags and sung "God save the queen." This was followed with the usual chorus of asking Trump to "liberate" Hong Kong.

But it’s time to be honest about Britain's legacy here.

The United Kingdom did not create a liberal-democratic order in the city at any point during its rule. The territory, ruled by a governor appointed from London was of course liberal in the sense of its economic system, but not its political system which was unquestionable.

The pinnacle of such tenure was that in the 1960s, anti-colonial demonstrations and opposition to British rule broke out in the city, which accumulated in a military response far greater than anything espoused by the city’s police force today.

If you take the conceptualization of young people in Hong Kong at face value, they will look up to the United Kingdom as a superior and benevolent mother country which has an obligatory duty to "protect" the former colony against its parent nation, China.

Despite having never lived through it, nostalgia for the empire is paramount, envisioned as a golden and glorious era whereby Hong Kong was at its height and there was no worry about interacting with "The Mainland," which is consistently perceived as inferior not only on a political level, but also a social level, failing to meet their expectations of British grandeur.

Protesters set fire outside a police station in Hong Kong's Kowloon area, September 7, 2019. /CGTN Photo

Protesters set fire outside a police station in Hong Kong's Kowloon area, September 7, 2019. /CGTN Photo

The reality however, was different: Hong Kong was built upon a clear racial hierarchy whereby the white Britons and their financial interests were inflated above that of the locals, whom existed initially as a cheap and convenient labor force when the colony thrived as a manufacturing hub.

English literature in the 20th century reflects this mentality, mocking Chinese as being simply useful for laundry. There was no concept of equality nor for that matter popular rule for the vast majority of the territory’s history, with electoral provisions only being offered partially before the handover.

In this case, the 1960s was a turbulent time in Hong Kong. Throughout the world, it was an era of social change and revolution. Back in Britain, the anti-war and counterculture movements were in full swing. After the People's Republic of China (PRC) consolidated, in the 1960s, the fervor of rebellion took a hold among young people in Hong Kong, whom resented their status as a colony of Britain in unequal racial standing.

A series of labor disputes over unfair conditions in a factory led to a heavy-handed response by police, aggregating in a series of left-wing protests against London’s rule over the colony, bearing slogans such as "Down With British Imperialism!"

The United Kingdom responded not with reconciliation, but with sheer force to the events. The government imposed martial law and granted the police exceptional powers, banning publications, shutting down schools and using lethal force.

Over an 18-month span, nearly 5,000 people were arrested and over 36 people killed by authorities. In Britain itself, the response of the city’s police force was in fact praised, with Queen Elizabeth even granting it the title "Royal."

This is oddly enough, far worse than the outcry over scenes in contemporary Hong Kong, where Britain and others have taken a moral high ground and amplified the discourse that the city’s authorities and for that matter, China cannot be trusted to look after the territory without their benevolent supervision.

In this case, people need to take a more objective view of history. British rule in Hong Kong was not a utopia to be glorified and looked back upon. The city was rich, but harsh, in an ironic twist being far more heavy-handed and brutal than its current existence, thus overwhelmingly distant from what young people today, having never lived through it, envision it to be.

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