15 September 2019
Beijing's promotion of patriotism and nationalism fails to resonate with Hong Kong people because we have a different view of our colonial past. Photo: HKEJ
Beijing's promotion of patriotism and nationalism fails to resonate with Hong Kong people because we have a different view of our colonial past. Photo: HKEJ

Why Hong Kong and China view the colonial past differently

As Beijing flexed its military muscle at its biggest ever military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Sept. 3, the SAR government also declared the day a public holiday.

However, apart from the pro-establishment camp and some local entertainers who are making loads of renminbi in recent years, it seems the majority of Hong Kong people, particularly the youth, were rather indifferent to the massive celebration held in Beijing and the patriotic rhetoric of our paramount leaders.

Instead, the portrayal of the role of the Chinese Communist Party during the war against the Japanese invaders by mainland mouthpieces has drawn widespread criticism from the local academic community, who said the Communist Party was deliberately distorting historical facts in order to exaggerate its role and importance during the war.

“Fighting off invaders” and “reclaiming lost territories” have always been the main themes in the so-called “patriotic education” being promoted by the Communist Party ever since it came to power, and Beijing has been putting a lot of effort into promoting these themes in Hong Kong since 1997.

However, despite all the efforts, the promotion of patriotism has failed to resonate with the majority of the people in Hong Kong, and sometimes it even became the subject of parody and satire among local netizens and artists.

The reasons behind this failure could be multiple, but there is certainly one major factor, namely, the fundamental differences between Hongkongers and our Beijing leaders in viewing our colonial past.

In his book “The Revival of Chinese Nationalism”, Professor Wang Gungwu, a world-renowned authority on modern Chinese history and a former vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, describes the current form of nationalism embraced by Beijing as “Restorative Nationalism”.

Its main theme is that given China has been deeply humiliated by foreign invasion over the past century, the prime mission of the Chinese Communist Party is to restore the pride of the Chinese people and settle old scores with our old enemies.

Under such a grand strategy, there is no room for a “me first, country second” mentality, and individual rights have to give way to common interest.

This particular type of nationalism has dominated the subject matter of the national education program in Hong Kong since the handover, and has become the main theme in our history textbooks and government documents.

Under this notion, the cession of Hong Kong to Britain in 1841 was the beginning of our century-old national humiliation, whereas the city’s return to China in 1997 marked the end of that humiliating chapter and the beginning of the restoration of the pride and strength of the “Celestial Empire”.

Although this interpretation has found a huge audience on the mainland, it fails to resonate with the vast majority of the Hong Kong public, especially among those who were born in the ’80s and ’90s.

The main reason why most Hong Kong people don’t buy into this notion is because most of them just simply don’t share that sense of historical humiliation at all.

Our society saw remarkable improvements in the lives of the general public between the ’50s and ’70s under British rule, through policies introduced by the colonial government such as the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the public housing and social welfare programs as well as the nine-year free education.

It is during this period of time that the colonial administration managed to establish its credibility and legitimacy through its effective, efficient and uncorrupt governance, while the people of Hong Kong gradually developed their own sense of identity.

Most of our grandparents and parents certainly neither hated the colonial government nor felt ashamed about being under British rule when they were young, because compared to the continued political turmoil that swept China during the period, they could at least lead a relatively stable and decent life in Hong Kong.

On the other hand, western values brought by the British such as equality, freedom and the rule of law have already been so deeply entrenched in our minds that they have already become an indispensable part of our core values.

Simply put, to most people in Hong Kong, there wasn’t any stigma attached to the colonial past, and there weren’t much persecution and suppression going on during that period either, unlike what Beijing has been trying to portray.

To make matters worse, to the dismay of many Hong Kong people, our city has witnessed a continued deterioration of our economic viability, freedom, autonomy, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and the rise of corruption and vote-rigging in elections ever since the handover 18 years ago, and it seems things are just getting worse and worse.

To us, the hardliners in Beijing who are so eager to interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong just look more like the “foreign threat” which they themselves have been warning us against.

How could anybody expect the people of Hong Kong to share that feeling of patriotism and identify with the regime in Beijing under such an environment?

I am not trying to sugarcoat the colonial period here, for there was certainly a dark side to it, nor do I want to promote any Anglophilia here.

What I want to point out is that as we are undergoing a process of “mental decolonization”, we must also make sure our Beijing leaders understand the colonial past of Hong Kong in its complete historical context, and respect our differences in historical perspectives and values, because this is the only way to achieve harmony between both sides.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 15.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Research fellow of SynergyNet