27 October 2016
A benign London granted Canada full autonomy and ultimately allowed it to go independent. That history offers food for thought for Hong Kong, Taiwan and Beijing. Photo: Internet
A benign London granted Canada full autonomy and ultimately allowed it to go independent. That history offers food for thought for Hong Kong, Taiwan and Beijing. Photo: Internet

A Canadian history lesson for HK, Taiwan and Beijing

The Global Times, a bellicose Beijing mouthpiece, warned in an editorial last week that Hong Kong’s pro-independence nativists may collude with like-minded activists in Taiwan to foment trouble.

Such an accusation is nothing new, especially now that the prevailing sentiment in Hong Kong is to fend off the Chinese Communist Party.

Being similarly situated, Taiwan and Hong Kong have empathy for each other. Taiwan provides an inspiration as well as a model in our quest for democracy.

Still, Canada’s experience in the struggle for its own independence may also merit the attention of the pair.

European nations started colonizing other continents in the 15th century, which is known as the Age of Discovery. Colonies and tributaries back then fell into two types: a developed civilization with a dominating indigenous population like India, Iraq and Malaya, and primitive territories that trailed their colonizers, such as North America (United States and Canada), Australia and New Zealand where the British first established colonies more than 300 years ago.

Belligerence could hardly be avoided when the first kind of colonies sought independence, but that was rarely the case with the rest of the places, the only exception being the US, the first British colony that separated after eight years of war.

London softened its stance after the defeat with a placatory policy to delegate its authority to local administrators, paving the way for the independence of its colonies without bloodshed.

What London got in return were close allies and the flourishing of its culture overseas, in particular the English language, which formed what has been called the “Anglosphere”.

The reason why London became so benign was because British settlers, far from their more developed home country, soon grabbed control of these colonies after aboriginal inhabitants were largely slayed or expelled.

London could stay hands-off while colonial authorities were run by the British and their descendants, having learnt its lessons from the internecine American Revolutionary War.

In 1867 the British Parliament passed the British North America Act under which Canada was made a dominion with a Westminster-style governance structure.

Through its governor-general, London reserved some constitutional rights including introducing legislation. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were all granted similar status afterwards.

With the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, London gave up its remaining powers in the running of dominions. Many colonies gained full autonomy, although their sovereignty remained with London, even if on paper only.

The Canada Act 1982, passed by the British parliament to “patriate” Canada’s constitution, was the basis of the latter’s independence. From then on Canada’s consanguinity with Britain has been no more than ceremonial ties.

Can we call these British colonizers and their descendants who struggled for Canada’s independence traitors who must not be forgiven? Or, were these British parliament members that endorsed the delegation bills defectors?

And, when advocates of American independence were reinforced by the French navy in key battles, can we, in London’s shoes, call them lackeys and puppets that colluded with evil overseas forces?

In the context of Taiwan, China began colonizing the island roughly the same time during the Age of Discovery, when the place was a laggard in civilization, and just like Canada, members of the island’s local tribes were outnumbered by the Han people from the mainland.

It was the Taiwan branch of the Chinese Communist Party that first demanded the island’s independence for a socialist republic of its own, as historical facts have revealed.

Thus, Beijing’s change of heart and its stern, self-righteous anti-separatism reprimand today are never on a solid ground.

Taiwan and former British colonies like Canada can be a source of inspiration to Hong Kong nativists.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 31.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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