June 2, 2023

The Paradox of Post-Colonialism in Hong Kong

Hong Kong remains a litmus test situated at the vanguard of an ideological struggle, wherein divergent world visions compete for dominance: a Pax Americana or a Pax Sinica. A fundamental dichotomy emerges, pitting a world grounded in the principles of liberal democracy against the ascendancy of a technologically bolstered authoritarian order. I know which world I want to live in. Do you?

Flowers and a photograph were placed for Queen Elizabeth II outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Anthony Kwan / Associated Press

On September 16, I was captivated by the poignant scene unfolding outside the British Consulate in Admiralty, the bustling epicenter of Hong Kong’s central business district. There, hordes of Hong Kong residents patiently formed lengthy lines, dedicating hours of their time to pay homage to the late Queen Elizabeth II. A colossal bed of flowers and reverential portraits of the queen gradually adorned the consulate walls, evoking a profoundly moving tribute. This outpouring of affection for the departed monarch may indeed stand as one of the most extraordinary displays witnessed beyond the borders of the United Kingdom.

I stumbled upon a video of a man playing a tune on his harmonica and discovered that the song was “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of the protesters during the 2019 pro-democracy protests. The lyrics go: “Stars may fade, as darkness fills the air. Through the mist, a solitary trumpet flares: Now, to arms! For Freedom, we fight, with all might we strike!” A few days later, I found out that the same man was arrested over the suspicion that he might carry out an “act with seditious intent,” as the Hong Kong police told the BBC.

Unfortunately, what happened has become all too predictable now. A former radio DJ found himself behind bars for daring to voice anti-police slogans and rallying cries such as “liberate Hong Kong” and “revolution of our times.” Owners of boba shops were sentenced to six months in prison for expressing their reservations about vaccinations online. Even a 67-year-old woman faced the heavy accusation of sedition and subsequent arrest, all for the seemingly innocuous act of applauding a defendant during a hearing in court. 

The plight extends further as journalists are increasingly targeted and apprehended, while independent newspapers like Apple Daily were forcibly shut down for simply writing and publishing pro-democracy op-eds. Anybody presumed to incite hatred against the government could be imprisoned. Police officers have been deployed to walk the streets and spy on local businesses. At this very moment, pro-democracy advocates are sitting in jail cells and solitary confinement.

Things like this have been happening since 2020 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Mainland China decided to implement a national security law in Hong Kong under the guise of safeguarding against “secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activities.” In reality, the law serves as a means to suppress the 2019 protest that was instigated by an extradition bill that would allow any alleged suspects to be extradited to the Mainland and be prosecuted there, where the legal system is arbitrary and potentially denies them due process.

The 2019 protest over this bill was not unwarranted, given that billionaires and booksellers have been abducted by CCP personnel and have to stand trial in a kangaroo court. Perhaps, the most notorious case is one about a series of disappearances in 2015 of the owner and staff members of Causeway Bay Books, a former bookstore located in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. On February 28, 2016, the owner of the bookstore, Lam Wing-kee made an appearance on Phoenix Television along with three other men. In an act of coerced compliance, Lam confessed to a crime he had not committed, specifically the so-called offense of “illegal book trading” and alleged involvement in smuggling banned books to Mainland customers. Upon his return to Hong Kong, Lam held a press conference, detailing his abduction, his unjustifiable eight-month detention in China, and the calculated nature of his scripted and coerced confession. In essence, the extradition bill—had it been enacted—would have effectively made the very kind of kidnapping, experienced by Lam and countless others, legal.  

Protesters marching through the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong In 2019. Many people in Hong Kong feel a deep contempt for the Chinese government and hope to preserve their freedoms for as long as possible. Photo Credit: Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times

In spite of the official withdrawal of the bill on October 23, 2019,  the national security law was passed in its place in 2020. This new law has granted Mainland authorities sweeping powers to conduct surveillance, detain individuals, and carry out searches without restraint. It is a deliberate attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to erode the agreed-upon “One Country, Two Systems” framework, thereby undermining the civil liberties promised to the people of Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Declaration should, at the very least, have guaranteed autonomy to Hong Kong for 50 years, until 2047.

Why should we in America care about these developments? The answer is quite straightforward. The CCP is already exerting much influence over our daily lives, shaping the very fabric of what we touch, watch, and experience. We see Hollywood movies that are altered to satisfy Chinese censorship. We observe the presence of Confucius Institutes, camouflaged as language and cultural learning centers, that undercut academic freedom at host universities and advance the Chinese government’s political agendas abroad. We hear about China’s Thousand Talents Plan program that secretly hires foreign experts like Dr. Charles Lieber, Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, to engage in academic espionage and steal proprietary information. We watch the news about how China is exporting its internet blockade technology, dubbed the Great Firewall to Iran, Cuba, and Zimbabwe. We witness China’s influence when professional wrestler and actor, John Cena, apologizes for calling Taiwan a country, and when basketball player LeBron James abruptly goes quiet on the issue of social justice when it comes to the world’s greatest threat to human freedom.

If you want proof that what happens in Beijing doesn’t stay in Beijing, just think about the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that we all just lived through. It was the CCP that deceived everyone about the nature of the pandemic and pressured the World Health Organization to tell the world that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” — despite Taiwan’s warning and cases starting to increase that raised suspicion of contagion. In other words, we don’t need to reside in Mainland China to be impacted by the policies and choices of the CCP. If China is willing to violate the Joint Declaration and take away Hong Kong’s freedom in plain view of the international arena, we ought to ask ourselves: what or who will be next?

So, why are we, in America (and the West), allowing this to happen to Hong Kong? The answer to this question is a lot more complicated, as the events that transpired in Hong Kong didn’t happen all at once. From the failure of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 to the short-lived victory of the Anti-Extradition Bill Protest in 2019, and the New Year’s Day march in 2020 which ended with mass arrests. Among the various factors at play, today I wish to focus on the post-colonial movement as a significant contributor. Just a couple of days ago, I saw a tweet by Multipolarista journalist Ben Norton: “These Hong Kong separatist activists are openly calling for China to be colonized. It wasn’t a coincidence that they constantly waved the British colonial flag during the violent Western-backed riots in 2019-2020,” in response to pictures of Hong Kongers paying their tributes to Queen Elizabeth II.

This tweet serves as a prime example of how progressive elites often treat post-colonial theory as an absolute truth rather than a theoretical framework, which by definition is just a supposition to help us understand things. Within this ideological framework, there is a condensed and minimal comprehension of power dynamics in which oppression must always come from people perceived as white, male, Western, or heterosexual. On the other hand, the oppressed are those whose identities have been marginalized—those from the East or Global South, people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. This way of looking at the world has a goal of raising awareness of injustice — that is commendable. But this lens also ignores the struggles against real repression within the global context, including what has been happening in Hong Kong. Post-colonialism has predominantly centered its focus on geopolitical contexts such as the Middle East (Edward Said), India (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi Bhabha), and Africa (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Frantz Fanon). However, it loses its applicability when progressive elites attempt to apply it indiscriminately to all geopolitical contexts, particularly those with distinct histories like Hong Kong.

Perhaps that was why progressive media and journalists didn’t seem to know how to cover Hong Kong protesters waving the British Union Jack in the 2019 protest. To see the inhabitants of a former colony raising a colonial flag or mourning the loss of their colonizer’s Queen is jarring to woke eyes. They couldn’t fathom the fact that perhaps if it were not for the British legacy of common law brought through by colonial rule, there would be nothing to protest about or mourn for. Perhaps it is a bit of a contradiction there to the post-colonial movement that the Hong Kong people are actually looking at Britain as a symbol of freedom. 

Pro-democracy protesters waving the colonial-era and Union flags and chanting slogans outside the UK embassy in 2019. Image Credit: Getty Images

Post-colonialism disregards why, for the better part of the 20th century, Hong Kong was known as one of Asia’s fiscal giants, perched near the top of global economic rankings, and romantically called the Pearl of the Orient. The colony was not a democracy in any conceivable sense, with many Hong Kongers enduring discrimination and being treated as second-class citizens under British governance. Nonetheless, they also got to revel in economic prosperity, political freedom, corruption-free administration, and the freedom of conscience. These qualities stood in stark contrast to the plight of their counterparts in the People’s Republic of China, who were still grappling with the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s destructive Great Leap Forward policies.

It is essential not to brush aside the abhorrent legacies of the British Empire in Africa and the Middle East. However, the overall verdict on the legacy handed down to former colonies such as Hong Kong and Singapore might be far more complex than post-colonial theory can explain. And Ben Norton’s tweet and other CCP apologists who call the 2019 demonstration a violent Western-backed riot, embody the moral myopia that embraces the actual oppressor (the CCP) at the cost of the oppressed (Hong Kongers). Does it ever occur to them that maybe Hong Kongers just don’t want a future where each citizen is closely monitored by a tyrannical state, assigned a social score, and tracked by tech giants that record their every move?

If there is any merit at all to post-colonial theory, why isn’t what China is doing considered a form of colonization? From the perspective of many Hong Kongers, the efforts made by the central authority to bring Hong Kong back into one China that most of its population has either never known or who themselves fled after 1949, are unequivocally seen as a contemporary form of colonization. But interestingly, the West only seems to notice the horrible consequences of colonialism primarily when it involves situations where there is a visible distinction in melanin levels between the colonizers and the colonized. Atrocities that take place within racially homogeneous groups tend to be downplayed or not given the same level of significance. Why is that?

Embedded in our collective consciousness now is the pervasive interweaving and connotation-building of words, resulting in terms like “colonialism” becoming inextricably linked with “genocide,” “oppression,” and “white supremacy.” With a slight whisper of colonialism, an entire cascade of accusatory notions effortlessly follows suit. And as colonialism has, on most occasions, been tethered exclusively to the realms of the Western world, the entirety of the Western endeavor is tainted. It is precisely within this overarching framework that the protestors in Hong Kong during 2019 were unfairly branded as “pro-colonialist protesters” and their sensitivity towards the victims of colonialism was called into question. Such characterization rests solely upon their symbolic alignment with the British flag and their philosophical embrace of the ideals born from the British colonial legacy, including democracy and freedom. 

One thing that is clear is how selective post-colonial advocates are in their condemnation of colonialism, conveniently overlooking the reality that the historical trajectory of our species and the geopolitical landscape we inhabit have been shaped by the scars of colonial violence. Colonialism has been a prevalent force, prevailing across civilizations since the dawn of time, making it more of a norm than an exception. Examples range from the Muslim conquest of Prophet Muhammad who amassed a huge following and tried to spread his caliphate around the world, to the Mongol Empire that expanded to cover most of Eurasia from 1206 until 1368, thanks to advanced technology and a massive horde of nomadic warriors. 

Yet, instead of acknowledging this and standing in solidarity with the Hong Kongers who face genuine oppression, we are prone to engross ourselves in the myth that colonialism was a uniquely Western transgression, allowing divisive arguments and accusations to subvert their fight for freedom. Postcolonial advocates regularly depict cultural products as stagnant and rigid, bound by unchanging attributes like ethnicity and race. They argue that colonial powers imposed their own conceptions of governance, law, and democracy on colonized societies, often disregarding indigenous systems of governance and self-determination. Their emphasis lies in highlighting how colonialism led to the suppression of indigenous political structures and the imposition of Western models of governance that failed to align with local contexts. 

Even though I hold a firm stance against the idea of using imperialism as a means to promote democracy, I believe it is equally misguided when these advocates go so far as to suggest that since Hong Kongers are ethnically Chinese, they should confine themselves to their designated sphere and refrain from aspiring to values perceived as “Eurocentric” or “Western.” Furthermore, the implication that Hong Kongers must have “internalized” colonialism if they are in pursuit of these values is erroneous and condescending as it denies their agency, viewing them as puppets of the Western agenda. This sentiment ultimately echoes the notion of “freedom for me, but not for thee,” grounded in the premise that Hong Kong people, being non-Western, are not entitled to the same ideals. But more than that, it is almost reminiscent of the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric which employs similar language to smear pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong as “race traitors” and perpetuate the belief that liberal democracy can never work in China because it is inherently incompatible with “Chinese values” or Confucianism.

This is a display of imprudence. Sure, democracy finds its roots in ancient Greece, with Europe contributing to its lexicons and conceptual framework during the Enlightenment. But the mere fact that these ideas were initially formulated in certain regions does not imply that the intrinsic desire for democracy, freedom, and human rights does not reside within every single one of us. To quote the insightful words of Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy tycoon who is currently sitting in jail, he astutely remarked, “The inconvenient truth [for the CCP]is that Chinese people in Hong Kong (and in Taiwan) live better than any Chinese in Chinese history.” These regions serve as natural laboratories, vividly demonstrating the extraordinary potential for Chinese individuals to thrive within a unique framework that integrates the governance principles of liberal democracy with the cultural tenets of Confucianism. 

Upon the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, the fertile soil of Hong Kong was graced with the delicate seedlings of liberal democracy, encapsulated in the Great Charter of Freedoms commonly known as the Magna Carta. In the span of 156 years, Hong Kong became the recipient, basking in the rich inheritance it bestowed. Even long after Governor Chris Patten sailed out of the harbor on the Royal Yacht Britannia on June 30, 1997, the resolute spirit of the Hong Kong people endures, unwavering in their steadfast conviction that this legacy is indeed a cause worthy of defending.

And rather than being interpreted as a nostalgic longing for its colonial history, the presence of the colonial-era and Union flags or the Hong Konger’s tribute to Queen Elizabeth II should be understood as a commemoration of the values and institutions, that embody the indelible legacy of British heritage. These ideals have evolved and transcended their original context, becoming path-dependent outcomes that continue to shape and define Hong Kong. Or as Lam Yin Pong, a Hong Kong journalist, put it:

Does it really mean that people seriously want colonial rule again? No — but I don’t think there’s any dispute among protesters that British rule was better than what we’ve got after the handover, especially in recent years. There might be some element of a rose-tinted lens. Perhaps some people are fantasizing about the good old days. But what’s clear is that under colonial rule there was never a clear feeling of freedoms being gradually eroded, of a series of government actions completely against our interests.

Meanwhile, as the Western world becomes so prosperous and at peace by and large, we have sleepwalked into the post-Enlightenment era of complacent placidity so that even when there are looming threats against democracy and freedom, we are too preoccupied with the intellectual luxury of allowing post-modernist thought to hamper our capacity to effectively confront these illiberal forces.

As of now, Hong Kong remains a litmus test situated at the vanguard of an ideological struggle, wherein divergent world visions compete for dominance: a Pax Americana or a Pax Sinica. A fundamental dichotomy emerges, pitting a world grounded in the principles of liberal democracy against the ascendancy of a technologically bolstered authoritarian order.

I know which world I want to live in. Do you? 

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