On the Queen

September 16, 2022 08:59
Photo: Reuters

Queen Elizabeth II passed away after a long – and near-unprecedented-in-length tenure of over seven decades.

I was in New York City when the news of her passing broke. The city was swept by a subdued, eerie sense of poignancy; amidst the hustle and bustle, mutters and murmurings pierced the veil of seeming peace. Ticker banners indicating her death – and the succession of Charles III – were ever-present. “The Queen was dead, long live the King”, reverberated throughout the winds.

As a former British colony that fought tooth and claw for its independence, America’s relationship with the legacy of the British Empire is complex – to say the least. Few Americans would consider themselves colonial subjects: under more ordinary times, the Royal Family was relegated to the sidelines as fodder for entertainment and showbiz, or as an afterthought for those making the six-hour commute to Blighty. The Royal Family neither held court nor authority over the American people. Yet such sentiments – Republican and independent in kind – would oft be accompanied by a form of admiration and respect for the institutions that made Britain the great power it once was, and the power that it is no more today.

I’d like to think of the relationship between Americans and the Queen as one that is both intriguing – because of the complexities involved; and indicative – that we can treat the British Royal Family with a modicum of respect, without conceiving of ourselves as British citizens; that we can mourn the passing of the Queen, without seeing ourselves as subjects to the Royal Family. I, for one, am a Chinese citizen – I will never be, and was never, a second-class citizen to a foreign power, like Britain.

I wrote my MPhil thesis on the damaging and devastating legacy of colonialism; a core part of my research concerns how colonialism exploited and raped the denizens of its rule through symbolic violence – Fanon’s wretched of the Earth, the so-called ‘barbarians’ who were ‘civilised’ (qua Kipling’s white man’s burdle) through the plundering and sacking of some of the most prominent cities in civilisational history. As much-loved Indian politician Shashi Tharoor once noted – Britain’s ‘greatest legacy’ in India was reducing into rubbles and hollowing out a country that had once been the wealthiest on Earth. Indeed, by the time the Brits had left the Raj, the hugely divided and pillaged country had little beyond an ineffectual bureaucracy, rampant poverty, and incredibly low literacy rates. To say that British colonialism brought wonders to the world, would be at best gross revisionism and at worst – dare I say – white-supremacist balderdash. The Empire was morally abhorrent, and consequentially diabolical for the many constituencies it had seized and absorbed with avarice. Let’s be clear.

But the Queen is not the British Empire. The Queen did not start the British Empire – indeed, she oversaw the transition of many a colony towards independence or membership of the Commonwealth, a more symbolic than actual alliance of countries. Nor should we necessarily attribute to her, therefore, the past actions of the Empire. To do so, would be akin to attributing the actions of parents and grandparents to the child, and of the child to their future generations. The Queen certainly reified and embodied colonial constructs and rhetoric – but she was neither an active instigator nor a callous abetter of colonialism.

The Empire is not the individual. I do not believe we bear responsibilities to mourn the Queen. But for those who opt to do so, they may well do so out of her sense of devotion to her country, her affability and relatability, her ability to serve as a stabilising beacon in a country wrought with political disarray and internal strife, and her persistence as the largely symbolic (and non-politically empowered), constitutional monarch for millions across the world. Taking a step back: when we speak of reasonable mourning and paying of respects for the Queen, then, we are largely speaking of those who pay tributes on grounds of reasons independent of the Empire – indeed, if the remembrance for her passing were rooted in a blatantly ahistorical and erroneous understanding of the imperial project, this is something we should take issue with.

Here in Hong Kong, where mourning her passing seems to have become politically incorrect in the eyes of some (though this has not deterred respectable, leading pro-Establishment politicians from so doing), it is one thing for us to be anti- and de-colonial in liberating our thinking (great! That’s wonderful!), and another to seek to police the emotions of individuals who, for whatever reasons, have developed a deeply resonant and resilient affection for the Queen.

Note, this is not a vindication for those who wield the passing of the Queen to score cheap political points in defense of the empire or to advance their own agenda for self-interest. Indeed, whilst the passing of any politically prominent figure is innately political, to politicise it via romanticising the colonial period, to exploit the act of remembrance in supporting thinly veiled racist ideals targeting (mainland) Chinese individuals and articulating politically infeasible and flimsy statements – would be deeply troublesome and questionable.

In truth, many who are reminiscing over the Queen, or lamenting her passing, are doing so out of a basket of reasons. Some of these are valid and normatively unquestionable – the ones I outlined above, for one, where the mourning is a fitting and apt response in light of her personal traits and excellence. This does not offer a carte blanche for knaves and unscrupulous individuals to employ the remembrance of her death as an excuse and cover for endorsing racism, imperialism, and colonialism. Yet to equate the Queen with such malaise, would reflect the myopia that only the most extreme jingoists in our country’s checkered past could match. It is not the case that all that is foreign must be bad; it is equally not the case that all individuals can be pigeonholed and compartmentalised into categories of good or bad.

I am no British subject. Having spent seven years in Britain, I know fully well what coloniality and racism look like. But I, too, shall mourn the passing of this Sovereign, who has carried her country from strength to strength, amidst some of its darkest and most turbulent times – from the Winter of Discontent to the Falklands, from Brexit to COVID-19. May she rest in peace.

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Assistant Professor, HKU