From top: Protesters rally against China’s national security law, in Hong Kong, on May 27; Anthony Sheridan
Hong Kong belongs to the Chinese in exactly the same way as the Isle of Wight belongs to the British.
Here’s how Britain came to own Hong Kong. In the 19th century the British East Indian Company was making huge profits in the illegal smuggling of drugs [opium] into China.
This criminal activity did serious damage to the Chinese economy and resulted in widespread drug addiction among the population.
The Chinese authorities appealed to Queen Victoria to stop the drug trade, she ignored them. The authorities then offered to allow the merchants to trade in tea in place of opium but this too was rejected. As a last resort the authorities confiscated supplies of opium and imposed a blockade of foreign ships.
The British responded by going to war. They defeated the Chinese and in the subsequent peace treaty demanded and were given ownership of Hong Kong.
For the next 150 years Hong Kong was ruled from London through a British appointed governor, there was no democracy under British rule.
Hong Kong citizens were never happy with this lack of democracy and frequently rebelled. In 1856, for example, when a very limited form of democracy was suggested the Colonial Office rejected the idea on the grounds that:
‘Chinese residents had no respect for the principles upon which social order rests.’
The current Chinese dictatorship holds the exact same anti-democratic view.
Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong before the territory was handed back to the Chinese in 1997, is outraged by this anti-democratic policy.
Here’s some of what he had to say in a recent article:
“The world simply cannot trust this Chinese regime. Liberal democracies and friends of Hong Kong everywhere must make it clear that they will stand up for this great, free and dynamic city.”
But Patten’s complaints are futile and hypocritical.
They are futile because China is now an empire and Britain a mere backwater on the world stage. They are hypocritical because the Chinese are not doing anything the British did not do during their occupation of Hong Kong.
And there’s another important point, Hong Kong is geographically and culturally part of China. Britain, on the other hand is nearly six thousand miles away from its former colony.
Let’s imagine a reversal of history. Let’s imagine that China was the most powerful empire in the world in the 19th century and went to war with Britain because it was prevented from selling illegal drugs to the British people. Let’s imagine that after defeat the British were forced to hand over the Isle of Wight to the Chinese.
Fast forward to the present day and the Chinese, having lost their empire, are forced by the British to give the island back.
How would the British respond if the former Chinese colonists, from six thousand miles away in Beijing, began to lecture London on how they should govern the newly liberated territory.
I think we know the answer to that.
China agreed to give some political and social autonomy to Hong Kong through a ‘one country, two systems’ policy for a 50 year period.
That a ruthless communist regime should actually honour that promise for nearly half that period is nothing short of a miracle. Again, if the situation was reversed, would the UK honour such an agreement, particularly if its political and commercial interests were threatened – highly unlikely.
And it is principally commercial interests that lie behind the, so far, relatively benign response by the Chinese government to events in Hong Kong. The city is an extremely rich capitalist money-making machine and China is fast becoming the most powerful and richest capitalist country in the world.
The Chinese government want two things, to continue sharing the wealth generated by Hong Kong but, at the same time, exercise total political power over its citizens. In a word – they want capitalism but not democracy.
And that policy is a carbon-copy of the policy imposed by the British during their undemocratic rule of the territory.
Anthony Sheridan is a freelance journalist and blogs at PublicEnquiry.
Hong Kong And Democracy (Anthony Sheridan, Public Enquiry)