In this brief article, we attempt to demonstrate how a historic compromise between British colonial power and an affluent local Chinese social class created fertile ground for the emergence of another “Chineseness”, different to and separate from the Chineseness of mainland China, or that of the Nationalists who fled to Taiwan in 1949. This historical condition we name “Late colonialism”. The British state’s attempt to mold its own homegrown and manageable Chinese identity, would however be gradually adapted and transformed by the local population into a vibrant cultural and social identity of their own. It is this culture, this social reality that is now being attacked and dismantled by a local, now entirely puppet, government acting on behalf of the People’s Republic of China’s regnant authorities.
First, we shall resume the nature and the brief history of the struggle between Hong Kong’s increasingly politicized population and the central Chinese authorities whose bidding has been exercised by its local agent, the Hong Kong Government, now responsible for administering a form of neo-colonialism that bears not only the traces of British colonial authoritarianism, but all the hallmarks of China’s very own totalitarian procedures.
The “National Security Law”, which was forcibly imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese central government in the middle of 2020, has completely changed the political and legal environment in Hong Kong, leading dozens of well-educated and widely supported pro-democracy professionals to be detained without even the slimmest chance of bail simply because their speech and actions are deemed to “incite sedition” or to be “committing sedition”. The rule of law, which use to be a proud marker of Hong Kong society has been reduced to nothing, left to the mercy of the trial judges to make decisions on the basis of their conscience rather than on legal norms in the common law jurisdiction, a legacy of the British colonial government. Repression under this draconian law is the unfortunate outcome of persistent local resistance against an accelerated loss of freedoms, including violent clashes between protesters and the police during the anti-Extradition Bill protests in 2019, which was also a desperate attempt to challenge the unfair electoral system and the global mainlandisation of the former colony. In the light of the Chinese central government’s repeatedly breaking its promises of granting universal suffrage under the regime of “One Country, Two Systems”, enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, “anti-mainland” sentiment has grown wildly, especially among young people, with some, who were born after the 1997 handover, even nostalgically embracing the colonial “legacy” they were never part of by holding high the British colonial government’s flag during protests.
After the failure of the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014, localist and “anti-mainland” sentiment grew further and faster, pushing more young people to declare themselves “localists” in order to counter the increasing influence of the mainland Chinese government, and a new form of colonialism. As early as 2013, Benny Tai (a law professor at the University of Hong Kong) had denounced the “fake” democracy that prevailed in Hong Kong. In 2014, the “Occupy Central” movement, which campaigned for the government of the People’s Republic of China to respect the provisions of the Basic Law, which stipulated that the citizens of Hong Kong had the right to universal suffrage, so they might elect a chief executive or “first minister” of their choice. The movement gained momentum in September and October 2014 with sit-ins and street occupations led by students. The demonstrators claimed the right of Hong Kong people to elect their own government and employed the argument of the specificity of Hong Kong’s socio-cultural identity. But where does this specificity come from?.
What started as a strategy to ensure the continuity of colonial power, what we call “late colonialism”, was quite rapidly subverted and transformed by Hong Kong people and local cultural institutions to form what we now call Hong Kong identity. Today, while many of the “wealthy” Hongkongers support the central government, the ideology of stability, and the passive and law-abiding obedience first instituted under the British, a vast majority of Hong Kong people defend this other Chinese identity. The irony is that the British who wanted to set out create this alternative Chinese identity, distinct from that of People’s China, ended up under Margaret Thatcher by marrying this identity to that of mainland China. The consequences of these policies are now manifested in the desire of the Hong Kong people to remain specific and to fight for an autonomy which they have never fully known, neither under the rule of London nor that of Beijing, a desire for autonomy which the regnant authorities attempt day by day to extinguish. While the term “late colonialism” has been applied to the period of colonialism in India in the 1940s, just before independence, and to post-war Africa, up to the 1960s, the particular meaning we give the term “late colonialism” here is somewhat different. While Hong Kong was after 1841 a colony of the British crown, a “crown colony”, which the Manchu state – that preceded the creation of nation-state China in 1912 – had been obliged to cede to Great Britain under the terms of the treaties resulting from the nineteenth-century opium wars, it was only after China “fell” to the Communists in 1949 that most of the institutions and apparatuses of colonialism were fully extended to Hong Kong by the British.
Third rank colony
In other words, while being classed a colony, Hong Kong was nonetheless among what the British colonial administration saw as their third-tier colonies. Hong Kong was not part of the dominions of the British Empire where the white settlers who experienced a degree of autonomy fairly early on, neither did it belong to the second rank of colonies which officially destined to benefit from independence such as India. No, Hong Kong belonged to a third tier of acquired territories whose peoples were deemed too barbaric or incapable of achieving autonomy or independence, even in the distant future. Hong Kong was viewed simply in terms of its worth as a trading post and military base intended to protect the interests of the state and of adventure capital; the opium trade in Hong Kong enriched the merchants and the colonial state apparatus which granted them “licenses”. The inhabitants, the colonized, that is to say the colony’s Chinese inhabitants, received little or no education from the British authorities, and were not trained for possible autonomy. The authorities paid little attention to the cultural and ideological transformation of the Chinese in Hong Kong.
Neglected Hong Kong
Over time, the authorities established a few institutions such as a medical school and the University of Hong Kong which served to train local employees for the infrastructural base of the colony; and then there were religious schools. But the British reserved to themselves even the simplest of civil service tasks, and the lower ranks of the police force were manned with Indians and Gurkhas from Nepal. This situation of non-training, this neglect resembled the condition of the African colonies. That is to say that the British colonial authorities did not seek to impose a metropolitan way of living, nor even to produce and spread a synthetic and negotiated way of life. In any case, before World War II, Great Britain like the other powers was much more interested in the other colonies of China, in Shanghai for example. Shanghai was the economic centre and the locus of cultural mediations with the West, with modernity. Hong Kong was on the margins. It was only after the Second World War, in the 1950s, that is to say after the establishment of People’s China, or the so-called “Liberation” at the end of 1949, that Hong Kong became a place of strategic importance to Great Britain as well as to the United States and its other allies. In the period immediately after World War II, decolonization spread, especially in British Asia.
The promise of greater autonomy
With this ‘wind of change” in mind, after Hong Kong was liberated from Japanese occupation, the first post-war British governor, Sir Mark Young, in 1946 promised a project of greater autonomy, the “Young Plan”, of which one of the measures was the establishment of a municipal council. But his successor, Sir Alexander Grantham, governor from 1947 to 1957, worked in the opposite direction, trying to erase the project from the political agenda. In 1952 the plan was formally abandoned, however Grantham commented that he was ready at any time to consider proposals for constitutional reform provided they were not of a fundamental character. The Cold War eased American pressure for decolonization. Either way, Hong Kong was strategically too important to let it be governed locally by people who risked being Communist sympathizers. The state, that is to say the British colonial state in situ, instituted increasingly repressive measures in order to constrain activities of a political nature. The “Strikes and Lockouts, and Trades Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinances” colonial decree of 1948 forbade the pronouncing of political speeches during strikes. An Immigration Department was established. Grantham had identity cards issued, a Second World war emergency measure abandoned in the UK because of popular resentment, and which remains to this day a very “unBritish” concept. This measure was intended to facilitate the deportation of undesirables. During the early 1950s, this legislation was used frequently. This was the case after the riots of 1956 over the severe housing regulations the government had imposed on the tenants of low-rent housing, riots during which 44 people were killed by the police. In the wake of the riots, the government passed the “Deportation and Detention Ordinance”, a law that gave the governor the power to detain a suspect without trial for six months, renewable without limit. The tribunal concerned was placed outside the normal court system; probation provisions were not applied and indirect evidence was allowed.
Shortly after the launch of the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China, major riots took place in Hong Kong in 1967, during which 28 people were killed by the police, the government broadened and consolidated existing laws “the Public Order Ordinance”. “Unlawful assembly”, became defined as any group of three or more people who behaved in a way that was likely to disrupt public order, while the police were not obliged to prove that these people shared a common goal. These provisions of this law were in force until 1970 when an amendment allowed up to 20 people to assemble.
During the 1950s, Hong Kong attracted refugees from mainland China, most of whom wished to emigrate to the United States. For two decades, millions of them would settle in Hong Kong. From less than one million in 1949, the population of the colony grew to 3 million in 1961, and in the following year alone the population grew by 300,000. Today, the population is between 7 and 8 million. Obviously, for economic, social and ideological reasons, Hong Kong was going to have to function differently. Paradoxically, at a historical juncture when colonialism was coming to an end elsewhere, either violently or peacefully, Hong Kong began to be managed in an entirely colonial fashion with all the pageantry of the imperial state, including British royal visits, the naming of hospitals after cousins or aunts of the Queen of England, and the instituting of an education system that was to serve more and more to the building of a specific identity in Hong Kong. But the other reason why we have adopted the concept of late colonialism is not simply to describe the persistence of processes and apparatus of colonial government elsewhere extinct or moribund, but also rather to describe the very different ideological and economic world that followed the Second World War.
Post-World War Two neocolonialism
The world found itself in an era of neocolonialism in which the influence of the dominant powers, that of America in particular, would be exercised economically, and when necessary, through military intervention. It was this period that in ideological and cultural terms Frederic Jameson called late capitalism. In trying to imagine a framework in which we can understand the modalities of power in Hong Kong during the half century between 1949 and the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, we must remember that this late capitalism was superimposed onto a colonial and colonialist infrastructure and ideology, resulting in a unique synthesis that we here call “late colonialism”. Hong Kong became a huge, profit-generating, capitalist economy that found itself geographically contiguous to the most populous country in both the Third World and the Communist world. But when it came to democratization, there were few attempts until the late and hasty action of the last British governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten.
And yet, the colonial authorities had been ideologically active throughout. To ensure the tranquillity of the territory after the conquest of power in 1949 by the Communists as well as the defeat and retreat of the nationalists on the island of Taiwan, it was deemed necessary to fabricate a neutral identity by ideologically shaping the Chinese inhabitants of Hong Kong not only as anti-communist Chinese, but as non-patriot too; the development of a nationalism that favoured the defeated Chinese Nationalist who had taken refuge on Taiwan would also have gone against British interests. At the same time, notwithstanding the building of a professional elite, the cost and logistical problems of a British assimilation of a mostly poor and rural immigrant population, to which were constantly added new arrived refugees, made such a project of widespread Anglicization impractical if not impossible.
The era of consumerism
The possible compromise, after threats of insurgency, in particular during the 1960s, depended then on the construction of a Hong Kong identity, based on an American and European-style consumer society. The worker, the producer must become the consumer. The political and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s therefore closely resembled the transformation of everyday life, especially in the sphere of leisure, which took place in Britain and Western Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was above all the privatization of daily life, the withdrawal into the home and the family facilitated by the miniaturization of the media for the consumption of cultural products (transistors, inexpensive televisions, and later the audio cassette), which were significant for the construction of this new identity. Such privatization implied the fragmentation of collective life, especially with regard to workers and their unionization.
However, the survival of colonial state power required measures beyond economics and concessions to a new emerging middle class, it also required ideological adjustment. A strategy was needed for building a sense of belonging to Hong Kong that excluded nostalgic Chinese nationalism and empathy for the contemporary motherland. It was impossible to deny the Chineseness of the population, but it could be reinvented, reshaped. Chinese culture represented as the past, as an ancient culture, could be tolerated and even incorporated into the identity of Hong Kong. But, Hong Kong identity also had to incorporate modernity and the West. A synthesis was required, but a synthesis that did not encourage a taste autonomy. Major changes followed the riots of 1967. It was at that moment that a discourse of Hong Kong “citizenship”, “community” and “belonging” was rapidly disseminated. After the riots in the summer of 1967, the authorities hastily organized a week of festivals and shows. At a moment in time in the socio-economic development of Hong Kong when production and consumption of mass television did not yet exist, the festival offered variety shows, exhibitions, fashion parades, and a cavalcade.
”Hong Kong People”
Officially, the 1967 week was organized by the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, unofficially it was promoted by the government , which in 1969 organized the grandiose “Festival of Hong Kong” 香港節 featuring popular dances, cavalcades, fashion shows, and pop music concerts. The ambition was to build a sense of unity among the inhabitants of the colony, or according to the official festival slogan “Hong Kong People use Hong Kong Goods” to emphasize that the community’s difference and unity vis à vis “China”. The slogan contrasted dramatically with the previously prevalent pro-China patriotic slogan “Chinese people using Chinese goods”. The new slogan also reaffirmed the unique identity of Hongkongness in preferring the term “Hong Kong People” 香港人 hoeng1 gong2 jan4 to “Chinese people”中國人 zung1 gwok3 jan4.
According to the festival brochure, and without any apparent trace of irony, the event was described as a “shop window for democracy”. But, in truth, what lay behind the window was the seduction of consumerism, an effective remedy to quell social discontent. During the 1950s, the government favoured the Hong Kong Federation of Industry which, along with the colonial administration, would dominate the production and definition of discourses of Chineseness” the “modern”. In order to increase trade with the West, the HKFI promoted Western design. After many campaigns, modernity became commensurate with Westernization, and in addition modernity was identified as the only way forward socially. While setting aside Chinese history and practices resulting from pre-existing mediations and syntheses of modernity in China (such as the Shanghai film and music industry, and the development of modern Chinese design during the 1920s and 1930s of which the qipao 旗袍 or cheong sam長衫was an example), an Orientalizing and exoticizing discourse was preferred in Hong Kong. It was a discourse that portrayed Chinese design as complicated, ornate, ancient, while modern Hong Kong design became a simulacrum of Western design. Beyond the re-imagining of design, fashion and consumer culture, education was a major tool of manipulation and socialization and was relentlessly deployed in the ideological reconstruction of Hong Kong and the legitimization of its regnant authority. The teaching of history was particularly targeted. Presaging a similar strategy of memory erasure and suppression that would be employed in Hong Kong after 2019 by the central Chinese authorities, the British colonial strategy did not aim to revise history, but rather to erase entire periods of Chinese and world history from the agenda, and therefore from the popular imagination.
In his seminal book Portrait of the colonized preceded by the portrait of the colonizer (1957), Albert Memmi reminded us that the history taught to the colonized is never their own, the whole of history seeming to have taken place. outside of their own community, where textbooks tell them about a world that is not theirs.
In post-war Hong Kong, this mass amnesia was incorporated into the curriculum. This was an effective policy at a time when primary, and even secondary, education was becoming widespread. Teachers who tried to teach differently were simply dismissed. In 1948, an amendment to the Education Ordinance gave the Director of Education the power to refuse or revoke the certification of any teacher, close any school, and control the curricula and textbooks of all schools in the colony; most of these being private but subsidized by the government. The intention of these measures was to outlaw nationalist and patriotic content of a Communist or Nationalist nature. In 1952, the Syllabus and Textbooks Committee organized the writing and editing of “non-political” textbooks. Civics became a public examination subject. “Civics” concerned hygiene, civic duties, and the independence of the individual. Students studied the powers of the governor, and the relationship between the governments of Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.
In 1965, “Civics” gave way to “Economic and Public Affairs,” which continued to emphasize the passive and law-abiding obedience of neutral, and neutralized, citizenship. In line with the government’s goal of building a community identity, in 1975, subjects on participation and belonging were included in the curriculum. However, it was more about participation in the sense of service to society or the community, rather than engagement in political life.
As far as the teaching of history was concerned, anti-colonial struggles favouring autonomy were excluded from the curriculum. In fact, the history of the twentieth century was entirely excluded. The Advanced Level exams included European history (50%), the history of India and South-East Asia (25%) and the history of Japan or China. Paradoxically, but tellingly, China’s history ended in 1911, the year of the Chinese revolution which gave rise to the first nation-state to bear the name “China”. The Opium Wars, however, were not on the syllabus and even European history ended abruptly in 1840.
In 1988, several years after the Sino-British Hong Kong Handover Agreements were signed, the history curriculum allowed schools to consecrate up to 50% of the syllabus to the history of China up to the 1920s; in other words the emergence of the Chinese Communist Party. By the time of the 1997 handover, it was possible to study Chinese history up to the 1970s, but most teachers insisted on the period before 1911 which they considered safer; 90% of the examination questions concerned the pre-modern period. While many former students had only a very vague idea of the history of China and Hong Kong, their knowledge of the unification of Italy was often excellent.
Thus, over a period of thirty years, a vibrant, yet blinkered, sense of Hong Kong’s identity was built up. Many people now think of themselves as “Hongkongers” or “Hong Kong belongers”. Acceptance of this identity was very useful in the process of legitimizing the Hong Kong status quo and building colonial power as a benign power. After the 1970s, colonial state power lost much of its importance and was complemented in part by the growing power of local Chinese entrepreneurs and by international economic forces. But in addressing questions of identity in this way, we do not want to give the impression that the Hong Kong identity as it really developed had replaced some other more “genuine” identity. Any identity after all is first imagined, and then constructed.
In the construction of the Hong Kong identity, the worst aspect was the institutional denial of the agency of the Hong Kong people by the colonial authorities. In the twenty-first century, historical reality has constituted many parts of Asia as constituents of modernity and not merely its exploited objects. It is a modernity that bears the marks of colonialism, is full of contradictions, unfinished processes, turmoil and hybridity. But is it really any different from the rest of the modern world where women and the working classes constitute the domestic colonized? In Asia, these contradictions and consequences of capitalist development have simply been exacerbated causing a concomitant amplification of the human suffering and dilemmas that go hand in hand with urban capitalist industrialization in general.
If we accept that Hong Kong has never been decolonized, has even been re-colonized,what would a decolonized Hong Kong identity consist of? Is it even imaginable? The fact that Hong Kong has been “returned” to China does not help the recovery of “tradition”, especially now that mainland Chinese traditions, where they exist, are being built and reinvented in a way that encourages the centralizing state-market nationalism and capitalism. Moreover, and fortunately, old feudal China no longer exists and its cultural texts and practices are now only redeployed in the construction of a national imagination cherished by officials who wish to sell its policy of “soft” diplomacy. And if there were a will for Hong Kong to be re-sinified, from what part of the complex of now centralized and nationalized cultural practices should such “traditions” be re-imported or reinvented, and from when? When and what would be the “tradition” in Hong Kong? Hong Kong is a metropolis of immigrants populated by people emanating from all over China, not simply people from Cantonese-speaking Guangdong, but also from Shanghai and Fujian, tanka “boat people”, Hakka (or “guest people”). And those whose ancestors came from even further afield, such as fourth and fifth generation Indians who now speak Cantonese and who demonstrated alongside other Hong Kong people in Central in September 2014. As for Chinese traditions, they were already re-invented, or their re-invention was encouraged, after 1950, by the late colonialism of the British authorities who represented the interests of neo-colonialism in Asia after the Second World War. These authorities were keen to build a different sinicity that would deflect Hong Kong from appeals to the anti-colonialist imagination of communist mainland China and Taiwan nationalists. However, other identities, themselves products of colonization, were constructed and imagined during the negotiation of this official and imposed alternative Chinese identity.
No pre-modern Chinese collective imagination
There are even minority cultural formations which at the same time have resisted national-patriotic and colonialist constructions of identity. None of the cultural spaces and practices that emerged from them, however, may be described as “transparent”, “pure” or “authentic”. They represent groups and classes that can be found in all modernized industrial societies.
This does not mean that the levels and the different enclaves of Hong Kong society have not developed specificities, or that no traces of a pre-modern Chinese collective imaginary remain, but rather that concerns of the majority of people in Hong Kong today – the working class that we represent and that is supposed to see itself as a middle class – are those of any urbanized industrial society subject to the inevitable crises of capitalism (such as this was clearly demonstrated by the financial events of the last months of 1997, and again of 2008). In 1997, although concerns about the repercussions of the handover on Hong Kong’s autonomy or rather on its multiple and multifaceted identities were most pressing, the most important event of the year for most people was really the stock market crash and the material economic reality that resulted from it. At present, the desire for real autonomy for Hong Kong, based on a somewhat indeterminate but nevertheless functional imaginary, has taken precedence over concerns of economic survival in a state of non-welfare for which the market is the driving force but which, at the same time, pursues a deeply interventionist policy.
Since 1997 the central Chinese authorities’ interference in Hong Kong affairs, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Chinese from “the North” who come merely to go shopping, has demonstrated just how different the two societies are. Even if access to the consumer society in China remains an ambition (what the propaganda calls “the Chinese dream”) for hundreds of millions of Chinese, it is no longer enough for the Hong Kong people who have already been force-fed on it for seventy years. They are looking for something else: the right to remain themselves with their social imaginary based on the maintenance of a distinct popular culture, on a language specific to them, on practices and traditions invented and reinvented but now institutionalized. In the demands for democratic autonomy that we witnessed in 2014, there is an ambition to maintain what has been achieved and not to see a local identity disappear. But, if such identities are to be used for anything other than the reification of a beautiful nostalgia à la Wong Kar-wai, they must be deployed in a metapolitics which engages in a process of disalienation which will involve a challenge and a transformation of both the oppressions of past and present colonialism and the suffocating socio-economic system. Even though we recognize the need to encourage and accomplish the de-alienation of modernity or hypermodernity, as Marc Augé has it, as well as to combat the oppression of colonialism of the past and present, we would also like to emphasize the importance of recognizing the historical realities that produced the lived “non-authentic” hybrid realities. Over the past 170 years social and cultural forces, not only in Hong Kong but throughout China, have had to negotiate the realities of colonialism, semi-colonialism and then neocolonialism.
Over the past twenty years, and in a more concentrated fashion over the past two years, what we have witnessed is a ham-fisted attempt by China’s central authorities to “decolonize” Hong Kong. That is, they have tried to re-sinicize both the language, the culture and the social fabric of the old colony. Yet, those attempting this operation are starting themselves from a historical position of a Westernized, now globalized China whose “authenticity” is more than questionable. Moreover, it demonstrates a singular failure to understand the nature, complexity and ultimate impossibility of the task they have set themselves. As many parts of the world have learned such attempts at “decolonization” do not bear fruit overnight. In the case of Hong Kong, the central authorities’ attempt to bring Hong Kong into a China that most of its population have either never known or who themselves fled after 1949 can only be perceived as a new colonization.
Hong Kong, the metropolis of capitalism and, in particular, of late colonialism entered an era of “neo-colonialism” in 1997 following its “surrender” of British colonial authority to the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China, under the regnant, albeit vassal, authority of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).
Since 2015, it has become clear that the demands of Hong Kong people, of which a whole generation never even knew British colonialism, today do not express a nostalgia for the colonial past, however much Western media might wish to promote such a fairy tale, but rather the desire to build a different future. The desire to live differently is legitimate, and the desire to expose the deception of power is just as understandable. An emancipatory change in Hong Kong would not mean a reification of a Hong Kong culture nor would it imply a return to a presumed Chinese cultural authenticity, but rather a redeployment and a re-creation of local and hybridized practices into a newly imagined future. Increasingly, it seems that such a future will be imagined beyond Hong Kong’s borders.
Gregory B. Lee is Founding Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of St Andrews Patrick Poon is Visiting Researcher, Institute of Comparative Law, Meiji University
The picture that illustrates this article is by Patric Poon