To say that Hong Kong was never a “colony” is not to deny the city’s history under British occupation, the Education Bureau (EDB) has said.

Debates surrounding Hong Kong’s colonial past were sparked in June after government-approved textbooks for the revamped Liberal Studies curriculum said the city “was never a colony.”

Hong Kong in 1990
A photo showing a Hong Kong street in 1990. File photo: Wonderlane, via Flickr.

In an article published online on Tuesday, the bureau said it understood that the media and the public had been “confused” by such comments.

Lawmaker Priscilla Leung said during a Legislative Council meeting in early July that saying “Hong Kong was never a colony” was nothing new. “But many people reacted as if a new continent had been discovered, and said [the Education Bureau] was smearing,” Leung added.

In its recent article, the education authority said the “fact” that Hong Kong was not a so-called colony was clearly illustrated by decisions made by the United Nations in the 1970s.

In March 1972, China’s representative to the UN sent a letter to its Special Committee on Decolonization stating Beijing’s objections to including Hong Kong and Macau in the international body’s list of “colonial Territories.” The UN “has no right to discuss these questions,” the letter added.

Covid-19 school student classroom
A Hong Kong school. File photo: GovHK.

The decolonisation committee then agreed that it should recommend that the two cities be excluded from the list of “colonial Territories,” and in November 1972 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution approving the committee’s report with 99 votes to 5.

According to the Education Bureau, that resolution “affirmed China’s stance and requests on questions of Hong Kong and Macau.”

However, critics have noted that the report from the decolonisation committee was bundled in to a single resolution with several other motions, meaning that the General Assembly was not solely voting on China’s demand.

China’s sovereignty of Hong Kong

The Education Bureau said it was historical fact that parts of Hong Kong were forcibly ceded or leased to the UK and put under “colonial rule” for more than 150 years, but that “does not mean that the UK’s actions… were legal.”

It said the UK had made the Qing dynasty sign three treaties regarding Hong Kong’s status by force, and therefore the agreements had no legal effect according to international law.

Governments of China since the 1911 revolution have never officially recognised those treaties either, the education authority added.

The bureau said the word “colony” was not an accurate description of Hong Kong’s status. To abandon that description was not tantamount to denying Hong Kong’s history under British occupation, it said.

handover 1997
The 1997 Handover ceremony. File Photo: GovHK.

While the UK had implemented “colonial rule” on Hong Kong, the EDB said, it did not have sovereignty over the city.

Therefore, according to the bureau, China officially “resumed exercising its sovereignty over Hong Kong” on July 1, 1997, rather than “taking back sovereignty of Hong Kong.” Hence, the ceremony between China and the UK signified “the handover of regimes” but not “the transfer of sovereignty.”

“We must allow students to correctly understand the fact that China has always had sovereignty over Hong Kong,” the bureau’s article read.

The new Citizenship and Social Development curriculum has been taught to some high school students since last September. It replaced Liberal Studies, which some pro-Beijing figures said was partly responsible for young people’s participation in the 2019 protests and unrest.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.