JPRI Critique Volume 24 Number 2 (September 2018)
An Unanswered Question about Hong Kong’s Re-colonization
Review of From a British to a Chinese Colony: Hong Kong Before and After the 1997 Handover, edited by Gary Chi-hung Luk (Berkeley, California: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2018), 292 pp.
The title is no doubt more timely and more provocative now than when the idea for this selection of essays took shape in the form of a 2012 conference at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University. Today, six years later, the subject of Hong Kong’s re-colonization under Chinese rule features prominently in the independence narrative that has gained adherents here mostly among the younger generation and caused much consternation in Beijing. The new interest followed the failure of Hong Kong’s 30-year quest for universal suffrage elections, culminating in the 2014 Occupy Movement that shut down major city thoroughfares for 79 days in late 2014.
Unlike the idea of independence itself, however, the discussion of Hong Kong’s colonial status—both before and after 1997—has long been a subject of contemplation and debate. Hong Kong was Britain’s last major colony and China resumed sovereignty over the territory on July 1, 1997. The essays derive from that discourse. But for better or worse depending on readers’ preferences, this volume does not answer the question in the book’s title.
The selection covers a wide range of topics that are well-researched and provide thoughtful perspectives on many aspects of Hong Kong life both past and present. Yet they do not confront directly what has become the fraught issue of Hong Kong’s passage from the hands of one ruler to the other, from London to Beijing, without the acquiescence of the people most directly involved in that property transfer.
This lapse seems to derive from the editor himself and his reluctance to take a stand. He appears too ready to try and accommodate all sides of the equation, but whether by conviction or only editorial discretion remains unclear. Luk’s basic argument is summed up on page 5, where he explains that while some aspects of post-1997 Chinese rule can be described as colonial, many arguments about the Chinese Central government’s and Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing colonization of Hong Kong are not valid. “In other words, the usefulness of colonialism as a conceptual tool in examining Hong Kong’s relations with its new overlord after the Handover should not be overstated.”
If he had focused on the overarching political dimension of dictatorship being asserted against the will of the people concerned, or at least without their consent however given, he might have been able to reach a more convincing conclusion. Beijing’s acknowledged integration strategies—economic, physical, social, constitutional, and political—deserve a much stronger conclusion since they are what is provoking the diverse manifestations of the argument he dismisses. Still, that lapse need not detract from the research that is being made available with the publication of this volume.
The Book: Structure, Arguments, Conclusions
The essays are presented in three sections, each with three chapters. Part One focuses on the legacies of British colonial rule that began in the 1840s—the comprador trading system, government and language, and the rule of law—with essays by Kaori Abe, Sonia Lam-Knott, and Carol A. G. Jones, respectively. Part Two reflects on cross border interaction and influences with chapters on film censorship, water management, and economic relations, by Zardas Shuk-man Lee, David Clayton, and Leo Goodstadt, respectively. Part Three presents colonization perspectives with essays on selected minority communities (Eurasian, Portuguese, and Jewish); on reunification discourse over time; and on the attempt to design a national political education curriculum for Hong Kong schools. The authors are Felicia Yap, Law Wing Sang, and Kevin Carrico, respectively.
Part One on British colonial legacies presents an introduction to the essentials: the foundations of Hong Kong’s current established order, business, language, and law. As such, they help explain Hong Kong’s inability to stand more effectively as the autonomous half of the “one-country, two-systems” governing formula that Chinese leaders in Beijing created for Hong Kong’s post-1997 life under their rule and wrote into its Basic Law constitution. The arrangement was built on unsteady foundations from the start.
The old comprador trading system refers to the Chinese intermediaries or middle-men essential for sustaining British colonial economic enterprises from the beginning until roughly the 1960s. These compradors of old are seen as the predecessors, similar in their economic and political roles to Hong Kong’s current Chinese business elites. They prospered under and supported British colonial rule and moved easily across the 1997 divide to play similar roles vis-à-vis the new sovereign once assured their interests would be protected.
These successful economic entrepreneurs are the people Chinese leaders in Beijing relied on for advice and investments when post-Mao China began opening up to the ways and means of the capitalist world after 1976. And these are the first people Chinese leaders began consulting as plans for the return of Hong Kong began to take shape in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
They are also today’s economic elites for whom places have been reserved on Hong Kong’s Election Committee that selects Beijing-approved Chief Executives. Additionally, these economic intermediaries are favored in the small-circle indirectly-elected Functional Constituencies that dominate half of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. It was an entirely appointed body until electoral reforms began in the 1980s. The Functional Constituencies were to have been phased out and Beijing’s refusal to accept this reform demand was among the reasons for the upsurge of dissent in 2014.
The chapter titled “Government and Language” is actually about the “language of government” and illustrates how successive British colonial administrations used English as a “political tool” to promote their varying agendas over time. But the author also emphasizes the interaction between English that became the “language of success and power,” and the “mother tongue” Cantonese dialect spoken by the majority local Chinese population.
The result is a hybrid form of communication: Cantonese interspersed with English words. It may not meet any linguistic standards for purity, but Hong Kong-style Cantonese has become a popular even defiant source of local identity—especially among the younger generation and especially since 1997 when official pressure to use Mandarin, the national language, has not been particularly welcome.
Hong Kong’s legal system—its rule of law and judicial independence—occupies pride-of-place as the ex-colony’s most distinguishing characteristic by comparison with the law enforcement tradition of its new sovereign. This defiant pride, too, is especially a post-1997 development. Yet even here, there is a mixed story to tell and one with an uncertain future.
The high ideals of British law were always present, but in the nineteenth century, to paraphrase accounts cited in Chapter Three, the colony was divided by race, ruled by collaboration not cooperation, and characterized by executive action instead of due process. Despite selective urges to reform, Hong Kong’s colonial record of law enforcement continued through the first half of the twentieth century when the Cold War and fears provoked by communist victory in the 1945-49 Chinese Civil War created new excuses to perpetuate old ways.
In fact, Hong Kong’s colonial system has evolved markedly only since the 1970s. Quality of life issues (education, housing, labor, welfare, and corruption) began to be seriously tackled after the mid-1960s riots of which there were actually two, not just the more famous leftist upheaval.
But political and legal upgrades were not seriously addressed until London realized Beijing could not be dissuaded from regaining its lost territory come 1997. Minus those upgrades, the British government would have found itself in the awkward position of transferring into the hands of a communist dictatorship several million colonial subjects who had never been allowed the experience of self-government and therefore had no means of protecting themselves. The British referred to their rule in Hong Kong as a “benign autocracy” but the incoming sovereign had never been known as benign.
Chapter Three focuses in particular on legal concerns that were made more urgent by the looming transfer of power. Under growing pressure from a newly politicized Hong Kong public, and in the glare of international publicity produced by the dramatic “end of empire” 1997 scenario, the Hong Kong government introduced in 1990 a Bill of Rights. This aimed to incorporate into Hong Kong law the rights and freedoms contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Thus, it was only belatedly, in the 1990s, that Hong Kong’s judiciary “finally began to fulfill its promise as a check on the abuse of power” (p. 124).
Despite its eleventh-hour introduction—and in the absence still of meaningful representation in government—the concerned Hong Kong public has come to regard this legal system as its main source of protection against arbitrary government decisions. Yet even this last line of defense is now being challenged by Beijing’s legalistic “interpretations” of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, that Hong Kong judges are bound to obey but have not adequately explained to that same public.
Given this constraint, which is augmented by other legal principles such as prosecutorial discretion and judicial deference to the executive, the idealistic promise of Hong Kong’s legal system is being sorely tried. It is giving way to post-1997 realities whereby Hong Kong courts appear to be taking on a new role—as enforcers for the very system they were expected to stand guard against.
In contrast to Part One of the volume that focuses on sensitive dimensions associated with the transfer of sovereignty and political power, Part Two concerns less controversial aspects of the cross-border relationship. These are the constraints that have remained more-or-less stable over time presumably because they are essential to sustain Hong Kong life, namely, water and financial management.
These were also areas where Hong Kong’s colonial officials had enjoyed a considerable degree of latitude, which they used to build Hong Kong into a world-class financial center. These enduring and relatively autonomous aspects of Hong Kong’s colonial tradition are augmented by a third chapter on locally-administered film censorship. Together these features of Hong Kong’s colonial past lead the editor to speculate, and equivocate further, on the prospects for Hong Kong’s continuing stability and autonomy under Chinese rule (pp. 17-21).
Concluding chapters, in Part Three, explore a selection of Hong Kong’s diverse cultural associations and ideological orientations. Chapter Eight considers how different writers have conceptualized the nation, its culture, history, and experience. Chapter Nine is a case study on the now defunct National Education Centre and suggests how the current official ideology purporting to represent a unified Chinese “motherland,” is struggling to gain acceptance here.
Taken as a whole, these essays introduce a wide range of perspectives on the Hong Kong experience. And although it is not the intent, readers will come away with important insights into the new “localist” narratives and advocacies that Beijing uniformly denounces as “separatist.” They emerged in the wake of the 2014 experience, which finally put an end to the illusions created by the pre-1997 promises for a locally-elected autonomous post-1997 government as written into the one-country, two-systems design. That disappointment is now being reinforced by the ongoing intrusions of Hong Kong’s new sovereign into its way of life.
Following from that disappointment, Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation, are trying to establish a distinct identity based on a shared community of values. This includes both elements inherited from the British colonial era and those contributed by the Cantonese majority interacting with migrants, new and old, from all parts of China.
The book is nevertheless marred, as noted, by the failure to confront directly the question of colonial occupation. But to do so would probably require a chapter on the shifting constitutional and institutional foundations most immediately responsible for Hong Kong’s current disorientation.
Ironically, this is the same blank space that marked British colonial rule. Hong Kong as a community had no self-governing tradition or experience or precedents to build upon and follow when the colonial government finally began its hesitant 1980s experiment in political reform over strenuous objections from the sovereign-to-be.
Despite this political handicap, the watershed Occupy Movement did not just emerge in 2014 as a result of some amorphous cultural dynamic. The protest had a specific trajectory in the three-decades-old aspiration for a locally-elected autonomous government, the promises for which were written into Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution.
Instead, the Basic Law has become a reference point for one delayed, redefined, and re-interpreted promise after another. Those promises, as Hong Kongers originally understood them, are now being transposed into something that only makes sense in the language of Hong Kong’s new Communist Party rulers in Beijing and their loyalist Hong Kong counterparts.
So, this is not just about the cultural and psychological underpinnings of a diverse community. It is also about the decisions, laws, and verdicts being made by Hong Kong officials, legislators, and judges. They are now working to rule at the behest of a Beijing authority that is impacting Hong Kongers directly but is not what they were led to expect by the promises of 1997.
Dr. Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and scholar. Her books include Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949 (University of California Press), Radicalism and Education Reform in Twentieth Century China (Cambridge University Press), and Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform (Rowman and Littlefield). As a postscript to Keeping Democracy at Bay, Pepper continues to chronicle the progress of Hong Kong’s democracy movement at her blog Hong Kong Focus (https://chinaelectionsblog.net/). Her blog posts are also available in a multi-volume printed version at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Library.