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Decolonizing Hong Kong on the eve of the second handover

  • The real issue underlying the Hong Kong discussion today is decolonization. By 1914, almost 85% of the world was colonized by Western powers, including this part of China.
  • Over the decades, the West withdrew from most colonies, but not from Hong Kong, which it liked to use as a tool against mainland China.
  • American and Western roles in the unrest of 2019 (and in the years leading up to it) show us that these old habits die hard—but also that Chinese sovereignty over the SAR is here to stay.
  • Today, Hong Kong has a huge opportunity to revisit the conversation about Western colonialism and its aftermaths in the city and the region.

WHILE IT QUICKLY became click-bait for the media machines obsessed with Hong Kong’s “death”, the new secondary textbooks that claim that Hong Kong was never a colony – i.e. in some legitimate, legal sense – have the merit of bringing forth a critical, if still polite, take on colonialism.

Readers may well recall past scandals within the public education system over an exam question on the putative benefits of Japanese imperialism in China, and a primary school lecture on how the British launched the Opium War of 1839 in order to stop, not to promote the spread of that drug.


Clearly there is room for improvement in the teaching and research of Hong Kong’s (and China’s, and the West’s) colonial and post-colonial pasts and presents. Or more helpfully, there is an opportunity here for both the teaching of colonialisms and its aftermaths as well as, more generally, for Hong Kong’s further journeys on the paths to de-colonization and what some have termed a second handover after the difficulties of 2019 and the last, fifth wave of the global pandemic.

The topics of colonialism and de-colonization should be taken seriously, provided that we do not lose sight of the unethical or otherwise negative effects of colonialism and imperialism as a whole – as if they did not lead to much plunder and violence and misery, all of which redounded to the modern West’s benefit.


Certainly there is room enough for a range of views about colonialism’s’ impacts and the limits and possibilities of de-colonization. The scale and impact of modern colonialism/imperialism on East and West alike is arguably the largest story of global modernity, and is therefore multi-layered and a challenge to understand adequately. (One might argue instead that it is the rise and spread and multiple developments of capitalism that is the larger story, but there would also be no global capitalism without modern imperialism either.)

It is always worth recalling that by 1914 and the outbreak of World War I, almost 85% of the world was colonized by the European or Western powers. The rest of that century was dominated likewise by war but also by national liberation and de-colonization movements. Hong Kong mostly escaped that, aside from the Cold War, but largely side-stepped the quest for de-colonization.

Old and new Hong Kong, existing simultaneously. Image by Andres Garcia/ Unsplash


Hong Kong’s own debts to colonialism are clear on the one hand: the English language, liberalism as an economic and political ideology, commonwealth law, and so on. But on the other hand the city’s debts to colonialism can also be deeply ambiguous because the territory never fitted the typical model, or the historical experience of colonialism and de-colonization in the other major sites of modern Western domination. Importantly, it never went through a struggle for national liberation (or to re-join the mainland) or any other effort to de-colonize, and it was always ambiguously related, and frequently hostile, to the Chinese revolution or to communism specifically.

The point of the recently resurrected not-a-colony claim would seem to be two-fold.

  • One, that the putatively legal treaties bequeathing the region to Britain were illegitimate and plain old imperialist theft (an unassailable, if old point). This is also to say that the sovereign power that Hong Kong island and thence Kowloon and the New Territories were in effect stolen from is not in dispute.
  • Two, that since Hong Kong was never a “real” colony like, for example, British India or French Algeria, then it could not return to some native, pre-colonized sovereignty, i.e. to some type of natural, pre-colonial independence and indigenous rule. Put another way, and howsoever amorphously or loosely, this territory now known as an SAR, certainly belonged to the mainland well before the British, and yet was also sparsely populated and barely settled prior to that time of unequal treaties. What would Hong Kong be returning to, once the British left? What else than China?
Royal Naval Hospital, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. CC BY 4.0


As numerous writers noted recently, at the mainland’s behest the United Nations decided way back in 1972 to remove Hong Kong from a list of places designated as colonized (or technically as ‘Non-Self-Governing-Territories’). This was not because Hong Kong was free or self-ruled, obviously, but because it was a mere “territory” and an exception to the usual course of colonization, whereby a foreign power conquers a previously existing regime or “tribe” or populated region, and then settles and administers it through force, through manufacturing consent, or through some combination thereof.

It thus becomes slated for independence, according to the anti-colonial logic of the twentieth century (and which the United Nations at the time was influenced by, thanks to the movements within the former Third World, including China, and to the former Soviet Union which had exerted some counter-balancing force to the US and Western Europe).


From this standpoint of the global, post-colonial and post- World War II order, the idea of Hong Kong becoming an independent entity after the British left was largely unthinkable, a simple non-starter. One must factor in as well the important absence of any significant anti-colonial or pro-independence movement within the Hong Kong colony, and that it was, again, not a pre-existing country or empire or even a well populated space prior to the British occupation/colonization.

For the mainland, in 1949, or 1972, or 2019, to for some reason grant Hong Kong its independence would have been tantamount to surrendering, not to the will of the people, but to the British or now Euro-American global power bloc. Like it or dislike it, this has always been the view of the P.R.C. and of much of the rest of the world not on the Western or Freedom, Inc. side of the older Cold War.

A view of Caine Road on Hong Kong Island. Image: Wikimedia Commons


As for the “will of the people”, only dyed-in-the-yellow-wool “revolutionary” partisans of 2019, or those thinking that the “high degree of autonomy” promised in the Basic Law meant a de facto full autonomy designed to stave-off integration with the mainland, would think a majority of Hong Kong people desired or expected to become a new nation separate from the mainland.

As others have noted several times now, the explicitly pro-independence voices have always been very few and only date from the last several years after the Occupy movement of 2014. As for the full-on “autonomists”, this was always a very partial reading of the Basic Law that was in effect propped up by the previous form of the Legco and the undeniably harmful years of constant filibustering and chamber-floor theatrics.


To be sure, this admittedly pro-integration view of the mainland and its rightful or legal sovereignty pays no attention to the rise and development – in large part through British colonial efforts – of a local, place-based “Hong Konger” identity since the middle 1970s.

But the thing about identities is that they are always multiple, diverse and variegated, and are always changing over time. In the coming years and decades this place-based identity will also take on new forms, while of course still being rooted in the actual city and contexts of Hong Kong. Change is the only constant, after all.


But first we must note that what I am saying here about Hong Kong being an exceptional case within modern colonialism (and it was so in other ways as well, especially in its near-total embrace of free-market ideology), should sound utterly familiar. If it does not, then this has to do with how the subjects of colonialism and empire have traditionally been taught (or not) in the SAR, how this in turn relates to how the P.R.C. has usually been framed within Hong Kong’s major institutions, and also with how we all tend to talk about them at home, in public, or on social media.

Hong Kong has an opportunity to discuss colonialism and its aftermaths. Image: He Zhouyi/ Unsplash

This is precisely the opportunity Hong Kong now has: to revamp the pedagogy and general conversation about colonialism and its aftermaths in the city and the region. There is no good reason why the subject of colonialism should not be taught in secondary schools, just as it is in most major universities in the world today, and this will inevitably cast a critical eye on the modern phenomenon.

In fact it is also one way in which the histories of Hong Kong and of the mainland overlap and inter-twine, as both places were caught up in not just a cold war but in a rather clear, concerted attempt to colonize or otherwise instrumentalize and control the mainland.

The American and Western roles in 2019 (and in the years leading up to it) show us that these old habits die hard, but also that Chinese sovereignty over the SAR is here to stay.

Our ways of seeing each other are rooted in history. Image: Chapman Chow/ Unsplash

Perhaps one way for the city, and even for the mainland, to further de-colonize its ways of seeing one another and the world at large is to begin here, with a shared (if sometimes conflicting) intellectual and political history subtending modern colonialism and imperialism. This would have the merit of raising awareness of what our roots are, and that our ways of seeing one another are not rooted in nature or objective truth but in history, and therefore are malleable.


The clear denial of “indigenous” sovereignty is hard cheese – to adopt an old British phrase — for those wishing for something like independence or, in what amounts to the same thing, a de facto and well nigh full autonomy for Hong Kong. But one insight from what is called post-colonial studies, a diverse field of academic inquiry into modern colonialism and its aftermaths, is that the issue of sovereignty, or even the goals of national liberation and full autonomy, have been much over-stated in the post-colonial era. Once one achieves that, once the last colonial governor finally packs up and leaves, the real work begins. Including the work of further de-colonization, beyond sovereignty.

Much the same happened after the communist revolutions: imagine building a new world in the ashes of the old, whilst still having to deal with massive social and economic problems. In a number of ways, and for many former colonized places, that achievement of liberation/sovereignty became a smokescreen for colonial hangovers that lived on, like severe social and economic inequalities (e.g. around class or caste), bad pre-colonial or feudal traditions like patriarchy, ethnic hierarchies, and so on. In some cases one might even think of such national liberation as a pyrrhic victory, particularly when such new regimes more or less copied the liberal democratic and capitalist modes of operation of the former colonial powers.


This is to say that there are not only social and narrowly political but also cultural or ideological dimensions of colonialism that must be attended to, if the goal is de-colonization and progress under new historical conditions. In some important and profoundly difficult ways, Hong Kong is at this same crossroads.

‘There are certainly abundant signs that the current local and mainland governments are aware of these problems and thus implicitly of this need to further de-colonize the city in this economic and broadly social sense.’

It has certainly undergone some major legal and political reforms since 2019, as it sets out on what has been called a second handover or second return to the mainland. No longer living on “borrowed time” but more clearly, consciously integrating with the mainland, now is the time for Hong Kong to travel further on the path to de-colonization.

Clearly the amount of socio-economic inequality is too high, public health and educational infrastructure too little; to say nothing of the well-known shortage of public as well as affordable private housing. What this means is that the major, future work of de-colonization will lie here, in improving people’s livelihoods and living and working conditions.

This in turn first requires an active and competent government and political class. What is more, there are certainly abundant signs that the current local and mainland governments are aware of these problems and thus implicitly of this need to further de-colonize the city in this economic and broadly social sense.

While Hong Kong has major challenges and obstacles to overcome, it is, or could be, an exciting time for its development and future.

Dan Vukovich (胡德) is an inter-disciplinary cultural studies scholar who works on issues of post-colonialism, politics, and critical theory in relation to the China-West relationship. He has been based at the University of Hong Kong since 2006.

Image at the top by fridayeveryday

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