They smashed glass windows, sprayed rude graffiti and defaced Hong Kong’s official emblem with black paint. But of all the dramatic photos showing hundreds of young protesters storming the city’s legislative building this week, one image makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing in Beijing: The British colonial flag draped aloft a podium in the assembly’s chamber.
That’s not all. On a day supposed to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the “motherland,” other protesters were pictured defiantly flying giant Union flags in the Legislative Council.
Why are some protesters — many of them millennials — harking back to a bygone colonial era, two decades after Britain handed the city over to China as a semi-autonomous territory?
“Does it really mean that people seriously want colonial rule again? No — but I don’t think there’s any dispute among protesters that British rule was better than what we’ve got after the handover, especially in recent years,” said Lam Yin Pong, a Hong Kong journalist.
“There might be some element of a rose-tinted lens. Perhaps some people are fantasizing about the ‘good old days,’” he added. “But what’s clear is that under colonial rule there was never a clear feeling of freedoms being gradually eroded, of a series of government actions completely against our interests.”
Hong Kong has been rocked by massive street protests and its most serious political crisis after its government tried to push through legislation that would allow suspects in crimes to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The proposed bills have triggered broader fears that China is chipping away at the freedoms and rights that Hong Kong was guaranteed for 50 years after its July 1, 1997, handover to Beijing rule under a “one country, two systems” deal.
Its constitution, the Basic Law, promised that Hong Kong voters should ultimately achieve universal suffrage, a goal that Beijing has pushed back indefinitely. That has long caused widespread resentment, especially among the city’s increasingly disenfranchised youth.
But Hong Kong never enjoyed democracy under 155 years of British rule either.
Governors at the time were appointed in London, and lawmakers were not directly elected to the Legislative Council until 1991. Most of parliament’s seats were either appointed or chosen by powerful professional groups. The city’s last British governor, Chris Patten, managed to push through democratic reforms only in the last years before his 1997 departure.
Even so, Britain was — and still is — widely seen in Hong Kong as a beacon of Western-style civil liberties and the rule of law, leaving a legacy of independent courts, a well-oiled civil service and institutions like an anti-corruption watchdog. The colonial years saw steady economic growth, and its free market policies meant the city flourished as one of the world’s leading business hubs.
“I miss the British-Hong Kong government before 1997. The British helped us build a lot of things: separation of powers, our rule of law, our entire social system,” said Alexandra Wong, 63, a protester who’s often seen raising the Union Jack at demonstrations and carried one into the legislative building on Monday night. “What I can do is to hopefully encourage young people to continue to persist” in fighting for their rights, she said.
It helped that Patten and his administration showed a gift for connecting with the populace and are remembered fondly by many to this day.
“He projected complete commitment to the people. People could feel he wanted to be on their side,” said Leo Goodstadt, a British economics professor and chief policy adviser to the colonial government from 1989 to 1997.
By contrast, Patten’s Chinese successors all suffered dismal popularity ratings — none more so than current Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Recent polls show that under her leadership, trust in Beijing and feelings of identification with China have plunged. Lam’s administration is widely seen as inept and arrogantly out of touch with public sentiment, bulldozing through unpopular policies with no regard for widespread opposition.
Many in the city see police violence against protesters in recent weeks as marking a new low for a government seen to be oblivious to residents’ rights.
“At least one million people have taken to the streets but they keep refusing to listen,” Lam said. “Never mind the British — any rational, civilized government would have backed off.”
Some say the protesters’ raising of the colonial-era and Union flags was a deliberate message for the world — especially Britain — to do more to uphold the democratic values they symbolize. Patten recently called for Britain to fulfil its “duty to help Hong Kong out of this dark moment.”
Both of Britain’s two leading prime ministerial candidates have made a point of stressing solidarity with Hong Kong’s protesters, and British media have featured the news prominently. Benedict Rogers, a human rights activist who heads the group Hong Kong Watch, said he’s been encouraged that the Hong Kong question is receiving much more attention in the British Parliament.
“We need to sustain this,” Rogers said. “Britain must take a lead in the international community and mobilize other countries to send a strong united message to allow Hong Kong’s freedoms to be preserved.”
It’s not clear, however, if the country has the appetite to take steps beyond offering words of concern and condemnation — or if the flags have had the opposite effect of hardening Beijing’s stance against the city.
In an escalating war of words, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in the running to be Britain’s next leader, has warned China not to use the Hong Kong protests as a “pretext for repression.” He threatened “serious consequences” if China failed to honour the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy — though he stopped short of spelling out any measures.
The Chinese foreign ministry shot back, dismissing Hunt’s comments as “shameless” posturing and meddling and mocked him for “basking in the faded glory of British colonialism.”
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said the question now is what America and Europe will do.
“Right now it’s mostly just rhetoric and it’s not likely to get to the situation where the U.K. can unilaterally do anything beyond the symbolic,” he said.
Certainly not everyone in Hong Kong sees things as better in the colonial days — though some believe that the more widespread political apathy back then is no bad thing compared to the turmoil today.
“Back in the day, there was no one involved in political issues, everyone was politically apathetic. … I don’t understand the reason why there are so many political demands after the handover,” said a Chinese medicine shop owner who gave only his surname, Chan. “Everyone can say anything now. I don’t see there is no freedom. The time when our government was British, I think we didn’t have that much autonomy.”