Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong

July 11, 2017 9:59 AM
By Sharon Chiu-Werharn, Business Consultant and Friend of Chinese Liberal Democrats

Sharon Chiu-WerhahnAs I was watching the extravagant fireworks display marking the twentieth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, it occurred to me that my memories of this seismic event no longer had the lucidity and brilliance of twenty years ago. It did, however, succeed in jumpstarting the somewhat sluggish process of introspection and stocktaking.

Growing up in Hong Kong in the 90s, I saw the sun finally setting on the British Empire, though its significance - for me personally - had remained largely unknown until I came to the UK in 2007. It was only amidst the countless rounds of introduction during freshers' week did I become aware of my acute identity crisis, which is embodied by this seemingly innocuous conversation starter, or rather, killer:

"Are you from China?"

"No, I am from Hong Kong."

"But Hong Kong is part of China, right?"

"Well yes, technically…" - the operative "technically" dangles subversively at the end of the sentence as if to qualify the preceding reluctant submission.

This is what I term the so-called "Hong Kong syndrome" that also afflicts many of my peers. Rather than being anchored in one harbour, I often find myself floating between different identities as a Hongkonger, Hong Kong Chinese and Briton. Perhaps, it is finally time to throw down the gauntlet by embracing an identity that transcends the stuffy confines of the nation-state.

The identity of Hong Kong itself is no less fractured. The official tale published in Hong Kong tourist guides promoting the hackneyed "East meets West" slogan conveniently elides the origins of this hybrid itself - colonialism. After China's defeat at the end of the First Opium War in 1842, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain as part of the Treaty of Nanking. The reason why there was indeed a transfer of sovereignty in the very first place is because Hong Kong had been under British rule for over a century and a half. As Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong as a British colony, bemoans the retrograde movement in the process of democratisation, for many other Brits their nation's illustrious imperial endeavours are all but a distant, hazy memory consigned to the annals of history. Curiously enough, whilst the focus in British media has been on what Britain could have done post-1997 and can do twenty years after the end of colonial rule, Britain's role as a coloniser and the concomitant legacy of colonialism have somehow managed to elude scrutiny. Before the handover in 1997, I remember asking my mother why Hong Kong belonged to Britain. "Well, you see, Britain borrowed Hong Kong from China", she said. But "to borrow" something requires consent; the jarring choice of words here actually lays bare the flagrantly undemocratic nature of colonialism itself.

Unlike in other countries, decolonisation was not followed by hard-fought independence but by an awkward, fiddly process of identity refashioning. Hong Kong people realised that they were no longer just ethnically and culturally Chinese. With their new identity enshrined in the law, their metamorphosis into Chinese nationals - through and through - took place overnight. The colonial identity of a British overseas citizen with no right of abode in the UK was superseded by a supposedly postcolonial identity determined by an alien, socialist China in a no less disenfranchising manner - which is eerily redolent of the institution from which they had just wrested the sovereignty of Hong Kong.

In Chinese media, the coverage of the twentieth anniversary of the handover is unsurprisingly different; "handover" has been diligently replaced with "return" to express ownership and proprietorial privilege. Be it a "handover" or a "return", Hong Kong had had no say in the matter from the very beginning; it was merely an object either to be traded or returned in a historic transaction between players larger than itself and beyond its own borders. Wrapped in parent-child discourse, President Xi Jinping's eloquent yet monitory words on July 1 warn the wayward twenty-year-old child, who has yet to learn the virtue of filial piety, against "crossing the red line" by "endangering China's sovereignty and security". In China's eyes, the "one country" no doubt eclipses the "two systems" in importance.

Watching from afar, I am very much taken aback by how much the political canvas in Hong Kong has changed since my departure in 2007. Having grown up in a seemingly apolitical Hong Kong dictated by the market-led forces of capitalism, I am struck by the younger generation's eye-opening level of political engagement as they fervently defend their cherished freedoms and fight for self-determination. Their bravery and fortitude deserve nothing less than our commendation. Like the preceding years, the annual July 1st march in Hong Kong played an integral role in marking the handover of Hong Kong. This year, in particular, its juxtaposition with the official celebratory proceedings was brought to the fore. With the red carpet rolled out for President Xi's grand arrival, the epic performance could of course not do without the cringeworthy regurgitation of obsequious platitudes by Hong Kong officials.

The city has however seen a rising tide of right-wing populism championing a sinister exclusionary "Hongkongers first" identity. Another equally disconcerting observation is the mock reinstallation of Hong Kong as a British colony signified by the flying of the colonial flag at demonstrations. In post-1997 Hong Kong, there is no place for such a tasteless anachronism revived by ill-informed nostalgia. Is it not glaringly obvious that the "resumption of British sovereignty" and the "independence of Hong Kong" are mutually exclusive? The views of those claiming otherwise smack of historical ignorance. Calls for Hong Kong to be an independent city-state are also pie in the sky.

Hong Kong has always prided itself on its pluralistic society, a place where heterogeneous discourses can coexist and flourish. Given the unique historical circumstances that gave birth to Hong Kong, the disjointed and schizophrenic nature of its identity should come as no surprise. It is the hallmark of our identity. Attempts to pathologise it will not further anyone's cause in the long run.