"The Case for Reinstating British Rule in Hong Kong" by Ben Shultz
A discussion about colonialism rightfully conjures horrendous images and reflection on some of the worst human rights abuses in history. Colonial powers stripped three-quarters of the world of natural resources, native cultures and autonomy, leaving a trail of destruction and instability that persists today. Mired in that discussion is the somewhat atypical case of Hong Kong, the last major Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, which was handed over to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. While some celebrate the PRC’s reclamation of ancestral lands, there is a growing contingent who argue that a return to British rule would be beneficial for Hong Kong’s future.
After defeating the Qing Dynasty in the First (1842) and Second (1860) Opium Wars, Britain
acquired Hong Kong Island and The Kowloon Peninsula, and in 1898 signed a 99-year lease for the remaining portions of Hong Kong to entrench its influence in the region. Hong Kong was developed by Britain under Western economic and social systems that stood vastly apart from the one-party communist system utilized by the PRC since the 1949 Revolution. This attracted immigrant workers and foreign investment, transforming Hong Kong into the economic powerhouse it is today.
Now I’d be remiss to not make clear that European-American colonialism in all its forms, from the Belgian Congo to the Westward Expansion, was carried out in the name of white supremacy, with the notion that colonizers were acting under mandate from God; in spite of its prosperous development, British Hong Kong is no exception to this. Through the 1970s Hong Kong was deeply segregated, dealt with severe addiction issues from the influx of British opium, and the Han Chinese majority had little influence in the government until elections to the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s parliament) began in 1985. Yet for the latter portion of British rule, Hong Kong was fairly autonomous, exercising an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and press, multiple political parties, and serving as a safe haven for dissidents from mainland China.
The handover of British Hong Kong to the PRC rendered it a Special Administrative Region
(SAR) and was done under a series of guidelines, detailed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint
Declaration. Among them, an important promise from Beijing that for 50 years “[t]he current
social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged”, otherwise known as “One Country, Two Systems”. This was enshrined in the Declaration and Hong Kong’s constitution to ensure that the people of Hong Kong would continue to enjoy the way of life they enjoyed under British rule — one with freedoms and rights absent from daily life in mainland China.
As time has passed since the handover, the PRC has become increasingly blatant in violating this promise and in 2014 declared the Joint Declaration “void”. Since the pro-Democracy protests of the early 2010s, the PRC has increased screening of candidates for the Office of the Executive, illegally influenced elections to support pro-Beijing legislators, forcefully quelled protests, intervened in local court proceedings, used state-owned enterprises to buy out the free press, and is bypassing the Legislative Council to ram through a ‘national security’ law that would ban “sedition, secession, and subversion of the central government” and potentially place its own security forces alongside Hong Kong’s police to intimidate pro-democracy Hong Kongers. The United States has declared that Hong Kong is no longer independent of the PRC, and this is a troubling trend that has been observed in SAR Macau as well. It is a sign that the PRC doesn’t believe it will be punished for violating the Joint Declaration, a position in line with the PRC’s recent violations of international law surrounding the expansion of territorial claims in the South China Sea, and has significant ramifications for the future of the declining Global Liberal Order.
One has to wonder whether a reinstated British colonial government would better represent Hong Kong’s interests, identities and values than the current setup of “One Country, Two Systems” that is undoubtedly on the path to “One Country, One System”. Hong Kong’s final colonial Governor, Chris Patten, is more popular than any Chief Executive that has followed, and prior to the handover nearly one million British passports were awarded to Hong Kongers. And in a twist of irony, the Union Jack and the British colonial flag have become symbols for the pro-Democracy movement in Hong Kong, not necessarily as an approval of colonialism, but as a way to highlight the sharp contrast between British Hong Kong’s relative autonomy and the PRC’s authoritarian regime. The overwhelming majority of Hong Kongers do not support direct rule or encroachment by the PRC; they prefer a hands-off approach — exactly what the British offered in the final years of colonial rule.