Britain’s concern for the welfare and human rights of the Chinese citizens of Hong Kong is truly, deeply, madly touching. After all, it was Britain’s forerunner, Great Britain, which in all its imperial pomp flooded 19th century China with opium and sent cannonball-slinging gunboats up ancient waterways to destroy Chinese cities such as Canton, Chenhai, Ningpo and Shanghai in the Opium Wars of the 1840s.
Those pesky Chinese wouldn’t buy or consume sufficient quantities of opium to satisfy the drug-peddling superpower that then ruled the waves of the world’s oceans and so the British Empire indulged in the most effective campaign of actual gunboat diplomacy ever waged. One of the results of Britain’s triumph and China’s humiliating defeat was that a lump of rock off the southern coast of China was ceded to the British. A much bigger and more verdant rock than Gibraltar – also filched, though from the Spanish – this hilly island grew into what today is Hong Kong Island.
It is the territory of Hong Kong – which includes Hong Kong Island and scores of surrounding islands as well as patches of land on the mainland of continental China – that is causing the British so much renewed heartache of late. Britain first cried for Hong Kong when it was returned to China in 1997, representing the fall of the last outpost of a vanished empire.
Very belatedly, in the months before the handover, the British worked as though possessed of high moral purpose. They wished to bequeath democracy to the people of Hong Kong, or at least a semblance of democratic institutions and representation – the very things that the British had consistently and determinedly denied the selfsame people of Hong Kong during Britain’s rule over the island.
Now, emboldened by the protest actions of millions of Hong Kong citizens and residents, the British are at it again, sternly warning the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of the moral imperative of satisfying the citizenry’s right to democracy and to human rights. Failing to accede to the democratic will of the people would be egregious, downright indefensible; indeed, that way moral hazard lies.
Given Britain’s fetid record of respecting democracy and human rights in Hong Kong, India, Kenya, South Africa, the Caribbean, the so-called Middle East and the United Kingdom itself – among scores of colonies, dominions, protectorates and variously invaded and exploited territories – it is no surprise that the Beijing government has openly displayed anger towards the UK that it more usually suppresses. Chinese governance has always been the art of dissembling, just as Britain’s trump card has always been high-handed hypocrisy. These morbidly fascinating modes of operation now stand starkly opposed over a lump of skyscraper-festooned rock in the south of China.
Of course, this is a phoney war. Britain cannot intervene in any meaningful way. China can do what it wants with and in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region and is likely to do so sooner rather than later. Satellite images a week ago of fleets of heavy armoured vehicles parked in readiness “over the border” in the PRC sent a clear message to Hong Kong: the days of “One Nation, Two Systems” are drawing to a close.
The coming demise of Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous polity is tragic. Its smidgeon of independence has long been a talisman of democracy for millions in the PRC. But no matter how many Hong Kong people gather in no matter how many protests and peaceful marches, Beijing will assert its authority. Every Chinese emperor or ruler knows the long lessons of how dangerous popular uprisings and protests have been throughout the four millennia of Chinese history.
As the millions of peaceful marchers filled Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Park on the weekend of 17 and 18 August, their umbrellas opened against the rain forming a mesmerising aerial picture, ghosts of other popular uprisings came to mind. Budapest 1956. Prague 1968. Tiananmen 1989. In those three earlier would-be revolutions, the tanks came and conquered; most bloodily at Tiananmen.
Words and actions
Wary of a Tiananmen-like outcome in Hong Kong, the PRC government is inching forward, expedience and prudence being its watchwords. It will resent attempts at influencing matters, especially by the UK, because of a past in which the Chinese themselves were unwanted presences in Hong Kong. In this, I have family experience, from 1911. My grandfather Ah Kwok and great-grandfather Langshi were travelling by sea from Canton (now Guangzhou) via Hong Kong to southern Africa.
“At first he [Ah Kwok] had felt comfortable, surrounded by familiars: the sound of Cantonese, the smells of home-cooked food, the typical Chinese faces. But something was not quite right. There was an oppressive feeling, an invisible hand hovering over the island … The foreigners tended to stare over the Chinese they commanded or addressed, not because the whites were taller, but as if to deny the existence of the colonised.” (From my book All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese family in South Africa, David Philip 2004)
A little later, the two tried to enter a park, perhaps even the same Victoria Park. They were stopped by a turbaned Gurkha, one of the gate sentries, who leapt into their path, brandishing his truncheon at them.
“M’hai! M’hai! M’hai! No! No! No! Out!” shouted the tall man. (M’hai being “no” in Cantonese.)
When Langshi objected, the constable grabbed him by the arm and dragged him inside the park, an irony that amused Langshi. The Gurkha indicated a wooden signboard with a notice in English and Chinese. In both languages it read: “No Dogs or Chinamen Permitted”.
So how can any Chinese person, wherever in the world they might be, take seriously the true, deep, mad devotion of the British and the UK to human rights for Chinese people in Hong Kong?