By Malcolm Wong

In the waning hours of July 1st, social media around the world erupted with images of Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag, not used since the days of British rule, overlaying the President’s podium inside the Legislative Council for all to see.

Protesters defaced the emblem of Hong Kong, spray-painted slogans, and unfurled the colonial-era flag. Photo: Thammakhun John Crowcroft/HKFP.

The images prompted some condemnation from both the left and the right, and have certainly been seized upon by propaganda spin-masters in Beijing to portray some of the protesters (or most of them, in the latter’s case) as fighting for an undesirable, or unpatriotic cause.

See also: Hongkongers should find hopeful future-facing symbols of resistance, and put colonial relics aside

Especially in light of this week’s article featuring Grandma Wong, whose Union Jack I have seen waving at several protests over the past few weeks, the images have lead many to form wildly inaccurate conclusions about the protesters and their cause.

Grandma Wong waves the British flag at an anti-extradition protest on Sunday, July 14, 2019. Photo: May James.

One such article is In Hong Kong, colonialism isn’t a bad word – it’s a legacy worth fighting for, by the Canada-based Globe and Mail. In the opinion piece, author Amy Lai declares “it’s clear there is still a yearning for Hong Kong’s days under British rule – and the spirit it left behind in its people” and that, “With improved governance, made possible by the wisdom and endeavours of both British and local leaders, the colony rapidly flourished in the postwar order”, among other things.

These think pieces have generated even more controversy around an already controversial banner.

I understand the pushback and controversy, but I reject the notion that young Hong Kongers are up and coming colonizers whose ignorance of history has blinded them to the evils of the past. I also reject the notion that we should surrender to the will of Beijing’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ and stop waving the colonial flag in fear of the way propagandists will spin it. Indeed, Beijing has already been censoring and spinning the protests to match the Party’s narrative just fine on their own; I do not believe they needed photos of a few old flags to help them accomplish it.

I would venture so far as to say that nearly nobody who supports these protests, or waves this historical flag, are neo-colonialists in waiting. Certainly, demands of “end Chinese colonialism” from protesters should quell that notion. When you consider the left-wing League of Social Democrats’ consistent and enthusiastic support for the protests, one cannot wonder that maybe the appearance of the flag is a bit more nuanced than some contrarians may suggest. Any intellectually honest observer would not consider this group to be an apologist for imperialism, nor could anyone look at Long Hair in his Che Guevara t-shirt and declare him a supporter of “colonialism”.

A routine criticism of not only the protest movement, but of using the flag itself, is that there was no democracy under British rule either. Grandma Wong notwithstanding, this seems to be an odd argument. If one states that both British colonialism was bad, and that the British didn’t give Hong Kong democracy, we ought to do what we can to reject this evil and bestow democracy upon the masses. Indeed, if those with pro-establishment tendencies believe that ‘no democracy under the British’ somehow justifies their opposition to the democracy protests at which this flag appears, I’d expect them to flock in droves to support the pro-democracy camp against this anti-democratic ideal. Of course, many will not do so, thus proving that they do indeed understand why this flag is used, and that using it is not an endorsement of anti-democratic imperialism.

Photo: HKFP.

They understand that waving the colonial flag is not support of the empire, but rather a rejection of the undemocratic interference in our own affairs from a government whose values differ so much from our own. It is a rejection of the authority of those who seek to undermine our way of life, our rule of law, the sacred principle of free speech, and an independent judiciary. It is a rejection of those who seek to eradicate local language and culture under the policy of “mainlandisation”, and who seek to establish a “Greater Bay Area identity” with a ‘greater bay’ who is more closely tied to the party line in Beijing then that of a shared Cantonese culture and history.

For those of us that wave the colonial flag, or those of us who support the imagery of the flag, it is in a way the irony of its use that makes the message so powerful: we use a flag from an undemocratic time to endorse democratic change. We use a flag from an oppressive time of the past to protest against our modern oppressors. It is to say that it would be better to live under the tyranny of British colonialism, then live as slaves under a regime in Beijing that we reject.

HKFP granted a pseudonym to the writer, a Tuen Mun-based university student, owing to the sensitive nature of their employment.

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