The Education Bureau, responding to a Legislative Council (LegCo) discussion, has offered an official view – the bureau’s “stance” – on whether or not Hong Kong was a colony. Views had been expressed in the LegCo, the bureau pointed out, that “Hong Kong was not a colony.”
“We must base our interpretation of history on historical facts and refer to different perspectives,” the bureau wrote. Indeed. The bureau’s stance is an official interpretation, nothing more or less. It is not in some sense “correct,” but simply an official interpretation.
The bureau’s interpretation is nothing new. The Communist Party of China and the central government have propagated this stance for many years without much traction, and now the bureau is passing it on to the people of Hong Kong as the government’s “official” position. The bureau is thus aligning itself with the central government. We should recognise this move for what it is.
There is much in the statement with which any fair-minded person could agree. The British occupied Hong Kong by force and coerced the Qing court to sign various treaties that produced colonial Hong Kong.
The bureau quite rightly points out that in 1972 Chinese authorities demanded that Hong Kong and Macau be removed from a United Nations list of “colonial territories” that should be granted independence. Removing Hong Kong and Macau from this list did not mean that they ceased to be colonies, but that they ceased to be colonies that should be granted independence.
The bureau claims that to “use the word colony to describe the status of Hong Kong is inappropriate (不恰当, bu qiadang),” shying away from saying that it is incorrect. The bureau goes on to demand that students and the people of Hong Kong must have a “correct (正确, zhengque, proper) understanding of the historical facts.”
This implies that there is only one legitimate interpretation and gives the lie to the bureau’s appeal to “different perspectives.” Perhaps the bureau meant that students and the people of Hong Kong should be aware of the official interpretation. I agree.
What to make of the official view that Hong Kong was not a colony? This interpretation is grounded in a partial understanding of Hong Kong’s legal status before 1997. We need to understand that authorities make law to protect the interests of those in power. The law has a clear political dimension, which the bureau conveniently ignores.
British law, which applied to Hong Kong, recognised Hong Kong as a crown colony. The basis of Hong Kong’s status as a colony may be found in the Letters Patent and the Royal Instructions. The bureau is saying, “Well, your (British) law is not our law.” Okay.
Still from 1841 until 1997 Chinese official entities in Hong Kong recognised and obeyed British law in Hong Kong. That is Chinese state actors in Hong Kong recognised that they were bound by this law. They settled disputes in Hong Kong based on this law.
Thus, while the Chinese government may claim that the Sino-British treaties establishing Hong Kong as a colony had “no legal effect under international law,” Chinese and foreign actors in Hong Kong behaved as if these laws had legal effect. To deny this is to fail to recognise historical fact. Hong Kong was a colony and was recognized as such by Chinese and foreign state actors.
Moreover, colonial Hong Kong was the lived experience of the people of Hong Kong before 1997. The colonial laws of Hong Kong bound them, just as they bound Chinese state actors in Hong Kong. To say that Hong Kong was not a colony is to deny this experience. Such a denial does a great disservice to those of us trying to understand the behaviour of people living in Hong Kong.
Finally, remember that the “through train” brought most of Hong Kong’s colonial political, economic, and legal institutions into the city. They are with us today. Repeating the official narrative that Hong Kong was not a colony undermines the very real need, recognised by the Communist Party, to decolonise Hong Kong, including our civil service, education system, and system of public finance. Starting from the position that the people of Hong Kong were delusional, as the bureau’s stance seems to suggest, gets us nowhere.
The legacy of colonialism in Hong Kong – a system built on racism and coercion – must be confronted and not denied. The Education Bureau fails in its mission to educate when it implies that there is only one correct interpretation of Hong Kong’s colonial history, that is, the official version.
At its most basic, by relying on the 1972 UN decision to remove Hong Kong from a list of colonies that should be granted independence, and taking that action out of context, the Education Bureau teaches us that historical facts do not matter, and toeing the line is the best way forward. This is very disappointing from educators.
So, to the Education Bureau: remember your mission is to educate. This means producing citizens capable of independent and critical appraisal of various perspectives, which the bureau claims to value, including its own official stance.
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