David Cottam says we must strip away propaganda surrounding SAR’s recent history if it is to weather storm
On June 30, 1997, Britain formally ceded control of Hong Kong to China in an outdoor ceremony marked by spectacularly torrential rain. We were all drenched, but the moment Prince Charles stood to make his speech, the rain intensified from torrential to water cannon. The umbrella held over him disintegrated, as did Charles’ notes, now lying sodden at his feet. In the circumstances, he did extraordinarily well, delivering his speech with professional aplomb. Of course, no one remembers what he said because the weather upstaged him!
Next day, I reflected on Britain’s legacy, pondering whether the atrocious weather was a damning indictment of British rule or an ominous warning of things to come.
Now, 25 years later, our judgment on what that weather really signified is complicated by two competing narratives, with each side viewing history through its own political and cultural prism.
The British narrative sees the past 25 years as a regressive period, during which the democratic rights, freedoms and rule of law bequeathed by Britain have been so eroded that Hong Kong is now an autocracy with all decisions dictated by Beijing. The much-vaunted policy of “one country, two systems”, giving Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, is a sham. There is no longer freedom of speech; peaceful protest is forbidden; and the draconian security laws recently imposed by China have created a police state with government critics facing imprisonment or extradition.
The Chinese narrative is somewhat different, seeing Hong Kong freed from oppressive colonial rule and restored to the motherland. It views “one country, two systems” as an exemplary model of government, combining Chinese patriotism with Hong Kong’s different traditions, practices and freedoms, all respected through a high degree of autonomy. Recently, China has restored much-needed stability through new security laws, bringing an end to the chaos of the Western-backed rioters whose violence had threatened Hong Kong’s prosperity, freedoms and rule of law.
So where lies the truth? To determine this, we need to challenge some ingrained myths. The first of these is that Britain established a democracy in Hong Kong which has now been destroyed by China. The reality is that under British rule, Hong Kong was never a democracy. Governors were all appointed by the British government without consulting Hong Kong people. Notably, the last governor, Chris Patten, was appointed only because he lost his UK parliamentary seat (and Conservative Party chairmanship) in the 1992 general election. The Hong Kong executive was never democratically elected. Similarly, during the 150 years of British rule, the Legislative Council was not fully elected until 1995, just two years before the handover. Prior to this last-minute democratization, the colonial legislature was dominated by unelected government officials and appointees.
Another common myth is that the security laws imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 were a draconian response to the peaceful protests of 2019-20. The reality is that throughout 2019, Beijing was remarkably tolerant of the protests, regarding them as an internal Hong Kong matter. Unfortunately, what started as a peaceful mass movement was hijacked by extreme elements, with the protests turning appallingly violent, accompanied by much British and American flag-waving and strident demands for Hong Kong independence. This ended Beijing’s reluctance to get directly involved. From its perspective, the “one country” part of the constitutional arrangement was being undermined, a red line had been crossed, and Hong Kong’s security and prosperity, so important for the Chinese mainland, was under violent attack. The result was the imposition of the new security laws. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, there had been an obligation after 1997 for LegCo to pass its own security laws, but as it had repeatedly failed to do this, Beijing decided it had to intervene in order to reestablish stability in Hong Kong and avoid possible contagion on the mainland.
The final myth is that the security laws have destroyed Hong Kong’s freedoms, ending “one country, two systems”, and undermining the rule of law by creating a police state. This is a huge distortion. Under the security laws, “two systems” remains intact, with Hong Kong still retaining a high degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. The rule of law remains a key cornerstone, with a judicial system still based on British procedures and principles of common law. Hong Kong residents still enjoy freedom of association, movement, religion, assembly and speech, so long as the intent is not to promote secession from China, subvert the government of Hong Kong or undertake terrorist activities. This is not so different from security laws in many democratic countries. There is, however, a significant problem with the vagueness of the language used in the laws. It is a great pity that LegCo had neglected this part of its responsibility under the Basic Law, as this would have avoided the imposition of Beijing’s wording, which is generally regarded as being open to wide interpretation. It is this vagueness in the wording of the security laws which has led to fears about freedoms being curtailed. Consequently, the biggest threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the press is currently one of self-censorship. We can only hope that with the passage of time, a sensible interpretation of the security laws will prevail, and some of the current paranoia will dissipate.
So what will be the ultimate verdict on the success of “one country, two systems”? Sadly, it will probably remain polarized. Myths, once established, are difficult to eradicate. As for the meteorological omens, the 25th anniversary was marked again by torrential rain — and typhoon gales. Does this signify a wind of change for Hong Kong and if so, in which direction? My hope is that Hong Kong will weather the storm of the past few difficult years and will recover its iconic status as one of the world’s greatest cities, a gateway into China and an example to the world of how East and West cannot just peacefully coexist but flourish and prosper together.
The author is a British historian, former principal of Sha Tin College and a director of Banyan Workspace in Quarry Bay. He is a passionate supporter and advocate for the mental health and charity projects run by his daughter, broadcaster and South China Morning Post columnist Sadie Kay.
HONG KONG NEWS