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The Paradox of Post-Colonialism in Hong Kong

Image Credit: Tyrone Sui/Reuters

On September 16, I watched as Hong Kongers lined up for hours outside the British Consulate in Admiralty, the city’s eastern central business district, to pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II. A colossal bed of flowers and pictures of the queen were gradually built up against the consulate walls—it may have been one of the greatest displays of affection for the late monarch witnessed outside the UK. 

I watched one 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.

It is hardly a surprise anymore. A former radio DJ was jailed for uttering anti-police slogans as well as phrases like “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Boba shop owners were put in prison for six months over their anti-vaccination messages online. A 67-year-old woman was accused of sedition and arrested for applauding a court defendant. Journalists were apprehended. Independent newspaper publications like Apple Daily were 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 impose a national security law in Hong Kong that disguised itself as the prevention of “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 supposed 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 unjustified, given that 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, Wing-kee Lam showed up on Phoenix Television along with three other men to confess to a crime he didn’t commit – the crime of “illegal book trading” and of conspiring to transport banned books to mainland customers. Shortly after his return to Hong Kong, Lam gave a press conference that detailed his abduction, his eight-month detention in China, and how his confession was scripted and coerced. In other words, the extradition bill would have made this kind of kidnapping, experienced by Lam and others, legal.

Even though the bill was officially withdrawn on October 23, 2019, the national security law was passed in its place in 2020, enabling mainland authorities to surveil, detain and search anyone they like. It is an indisputable attempt by the CCP to retract the agreed-upon “One Country, Two Systems” framework and abrogate the civil liberties, promised to the people of Hong Kong by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which should 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 forging much of what we touch, watch, and experience. We see Hollywood movies that are altered to satisfy Chinese censorship. We see Confucius Institutes, camouflaged as language and cultural learning centers, that undermine 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. To put it another way, 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 full view of the international arena, we ought to ask ourselves: what or who will be next?

So why are we allowing this to happen to Hong Kong? The answer to this question is a lot more complicated because what happened to Hong Kong didn’t happen all at once. One contributor, that I want to address today, is the post-colonial movement. 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 is the prime example of how the progressive elites take post-colonial theory as a fact, and not as a theory, which by definition is just a supposition or framework to help us see 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 is an American-centric development, created to explain the relationship between European settlers and Native Americans; however, it loses ground when people believe it can be applied in all geopolitical contexts, especially those with very different histories like Hong Kong.

Perhaps that was why progressive media 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 and 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 and 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. 

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 way, shape, or form, and many Hong Kongers struggled against discrimination and were treated as if they were second-class citizens under the British government. Nonetheless, they also got to revel in economic prosperity, political freedoms, corruption-free governance, and the freedom of conscience which were in stark contrast to the fate of their counterparts in the People’s Republic of China, who were still trying to recover from Mao Zedong’s destructive Great Leap Forward policies.

Indeed, 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?

Of course, people like Norton would simply try to explain the whole instance as “internalized colonialism.” This condescending stance denies the agency of Hong Kongers, viewing them as puppets of the Western agenda. If there is any merit at all to post-colonial theory, why isn’t what China is doing considered a form of colonization? Does the West only notice the horrible consequences of colonialism when the colonizers and the colonized have different levels of melanin? Not only does this perspective give permission to make light of cases of colonialism between racially homogenous groups and delegitimize Hong Kong’s fight for civil rights, but it also allows progressive elites to be deliberately oblivious to non-European tyrants and autocratic forces in places like Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. 

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