British and colonial-era flags being waved at Hong Kong’s anti-government rallies are a vivid rebuke to China’s rule but they have also stirred intense controversy among protesters who fear the symbolism plays into Beijing’s hands.
An elderly lady known as “Grandma Wong” is among the most ardent advocates of Britain’s Union flag, with her diminutive but vibrant presence a regular feature at the two months of pro-democracy protests that have rocked the international financial hub.
The 63-year-old – whose full name is Alexandra Wong – says the flag she chooses to wave is an expression of her dissatisfaction with the two decades of Beijing’s rule since Hong Kong was handed back by Britain in 1997.
“I want the middle-aged and older generations – many of whom are still asleep and don’t really understand the young people – to compare now to how good it was, relatively, in the British colonial period,” she told AFP at a weekend rally in the heart of the Causeway Bay shopping district.
China and the city’s leaders, she believes, are “destroying Hong Kong’s core values”.
The demonstrations were triggered by a controversial Bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but have since evolved into a call for wider democratic reforms and a halt to eroding freedoms.
Over the past seven weeks, huge crowds have come out onto the streets followed frequently by violent clashes between smaller groups of hardcore protesters and riot police.
Amid the crowds, British Union flags and Hong Kong’s last colonial-era flag, featuring a coat of arms made up of a dragon, two lions and two trading junk boats – have now become a common sight.
Beijing claims the protests are part of a foreign-funded plot to destabilise the motherland.
It is especially sensitive to comments from the United Kingdom, which it has accused of “fantasising in the faded glory of British colonialism”.
But for 25-year-old Neo Lai, who was waving the colonial emblem at a rally this month, the flag represents the “fusion of East and West” that many Hong Kongers fear is disappearing as Beijing steps up efforts to integrate the city with the mainland.
“I think it is the only flag that represents Hong Kong,” he told AFP.
Many of those who have embraced colonial-era vigils hail from the more radical wings of the protest movement – the tiny minority of protesters who want Hong Kong to break away from the mainland, an absolute line in the sand for Beijing.
“I am protesting today because Hong Kong is not China,” Dave Lai, who was waving a colonial flag he bought on Facebook, told AFP at a recent rally.
“I want Hong Kong independence. I want universal suffrage.”
During an unprecedented siege of the legislature on July 1 – as Hong Kong marked the 22nd anniversary of its handover – a colonial flag was briefly draped in the debating chamber.
But the colonial flag did not stay up for long – an indication of the mixed feelings it provokes among protesters, the majority of whom are not advocating for independence and fear that overseas flags play into Beijing’s narrative.
By far the most popular flag of choice at the rallies has been a wilting version of a Bauhinia flower – Hong Kong’s official emblem – on a black background, a nod to the idea that the city’s unique freedoms and character are rotting away.
Some Hong Kongers say people’s discontent with China should not provoke admiration for Britain, a colonial master that never granted democracy to the city’s inhabitants either.
A popular forum used to discuss news around the protests asked users to vote on whether they thought protesters should display colonial-era flags during marches, with 3,500 responding no and a mere 250 saying yes.
“Foreigners might misunderstand when seeing it,” one person wrote. “Hong Kongers want to rule Hong Kong, instead of being ruled by the Chinese mainland or the United Kingdom.”
There have also been confrontations among protesters over colonial flags at rallies.
During a blockade of the city’s police station this month, AFP witnessed protesters confronting another elderly man who is a regular at the protests waving a colonial flag. They eventually snatched his flag and took it away.
Wong, who is warmly greeted by most protesters, said she would continue to wave the Union flag at upcoming rallies.
“Many people think I’m humiliating the Chinese Communist Party, holding up the UK flag,” she said, with a grin. “That isn’t my original intention, but I’m very happy that it does have this effect.”