Preserving Colonialism  
by Kim Petersen
November 25, 2003

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The year 2003 has been a lively one for Hong Kong. It featured days of street demonstrations to a proposed anti-sedition legislation that culminated in half-a-million people venting their displeasure to such a new law. Many viewed it as an intrusion of Beijing into the autonomous Hong Kong political sphere.

A trivial piece of news was the proposal to replace a statue of the erstwhile British King George VI with a statue of Sun Zhong Shan, the first leader of the Chinese republic. The former monarch was not to be toppled ŕ la Vladimir Lenin or Saddam Hussein but, in a perhaps more fitting arrangement, moved across the street next to the monkey cages. There was an outcry, in particular by the ex-pat community. To Patrick Hase, president of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, the relocation seemed “racist.” Said Mr. Hase: “The clear implication is we want to downplay the British part of our history. I consider it extremely likely this is an attempt to curry favor with the Chinese authorities."

I am not especially enamored of erecting monuments to other humans but the symbolism is quite stark here.

Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) member Margaret Ng found the suggested move to be “deliberately insulting” and she further warned that “this kind of ignorance and vindictiveness will wreck Hong Kong.” Adding fuel to the fire Ms. Ng embarrassingly likened the proposed move to “fundamental ethnic cleansing.” This ethnic cleansing would release uncontrollable forces according to Ms. Ng. (1)

Ms. Ng obviously has her fundamentals mixed up. There is a surfeit of ludicrousness in comparing a statue swap to ethnic cleansing. This trivializes the suffering of the Afghanis, North American natives, Palestinians, and so many others who were uprooted from where they lived.

In an apparent victory to imperialism, the Hong Kong LegCo eventually abandoned the move. The homegrown Chinese revolutionary and Hong Kong-educated Mr. Sun would have to relinquish his proposed pedestal to the capitalist legacy. A non-panel member of the LegCo, Emily Lau, expressed her concern about the effect a relocation of the monarch's statue could have on Hong Kong's tourist revenue, as if many tourists even know of the statue's existence.

To imagine that in the twenty-first century colonial remnants and monarchy would still linger is lugubrious enough but that such symbols would persist in freed colonies is even more puzzling. One shudders to think what would be the repercussions in the western world if an ethnic minority would try to impose their culture upon the dominant culture. Canada actually had something mildly approximating this when Canadian Sikhs serving in the Royal Canadian Mounted police were permitted to wear their turbans instead of the traditional Stetson hat worn by the Mounties. There was an outcry from some elements of society but moderate voices prevailed.

Historical Context

Few people seem to understand what the colony of Hong Kong represented. Many viewed it as a bulwark against Chinese communism even though communism wasn't really a factor back at the close of the nineteenth century. What the colonization of Hong Kong represents is the most insidious elements of capitalism and imperialism.

Britain acquired Hong Kong through military conquest. In the nineteenth century Britain was a big-league drug pusher. Back then the Chinese couldn't "just say no." China tried and the result was the Opium War.

China scholar Patricia Buckley Ebrey considers the Opium War of 1840-42 of great importance because "it set the tone for those to follow and came to carry great symbolic weight in China." China's relation with the outside world was to be much influenced. Writes Ms. Ebrey:

"In Chinese eyes there could not have been a more blatant case of international bullying, of the morally repugnant imposing their will on those trying to do the right thing. This moral dimension in turn made it that much more difficult for Chinese to discern in western civilization anything worth adopting." (2)

The opium trade wreaked havoc on a sizeable swath of the Chinese populace. Chinese officials attempted to thwart the opium trade in China. They even appealed to the British monarch Victoria to consider their case in morally equivalent British scenario. It was in vain and the Chinese were defeated militarily and subjected to the humiliation of de facto foreign rule thereafter.

Hong Kong and China Today

In 1997 Hong Kong reverted back to its rightful Chinese heritage.

China had long since gone through a revolution. Socialism flourished (as much as could be possible in a war-ravaged and colonially pillaged country) briefly but was undermined by capitalist elements within the Communist Party. Today China is only communist in name. The economy is booming but the insidious seeds of capitalism have seen a widening disparity in the distribution of wealth. In fact, China actually has a higher Gini co-efficient than the developed western countries.

The Chinese return to the Capitalist Brotherhood and its concomitant invite of western imperialism opens the country once again to under regulated market forces, forces that China is not poised to withstand according to Beijing-based economist Han Deqiang.

China has switched to a market economy for a whole decade now. People once hoped, and may still be dreaming that, as the institution matures and perfects itself, China would become a strong developed country, where democracy rules and people enjoy high quality of life not only in material terms but also in spiritual and moral terms. But reality seems to be moving farther away from such a dream. Since the late 1990's, all kinds of Chinese enterprises have gone bankrupt en masse. With it came increased unemployment, lower mandatory retirement age, lower wages for workers, decreased income for farmers and slack domestic demand. With the influx of foreign enterprises and foreign products, many Chinese enterprises have switched their business lines because they no longer have the confidence to run a high-tech business at a profit. They become de facto employees of those foreign enterprises, earning meager fees for their efforts. In the meantime, there has been a staggering number of tragic mine accidents that kill thousands year after year. Major accidents involving large number of deaths, such as firework factory explosions, plane crashes, as well as fires at cyber cafes, night clubs, theaters and shopping malls have occurred with mind-numbing frequency; villages and small towns are flooded with fake or poor quality products; drugs and AIDS are rampant. Not only has corruption become a normal way of doing things among many officials, but it has also become a normal part of the values/belief system of the collective national psyche, marked by an egregious lack of civil-mindedness and ethical awareness. Teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants all share the belief that " One must make use of one's position of power for self-enrichment before one loses it"; schools have become agencies that sell diplomas; hospitals force patients to pay up or leave; (3)

It is a portrait of China that grimly adduces the caution of George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Kim Petersen lives in Nova Scotia and is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimpetersen@gyxi.dk

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(1) Margaret Ng, “Denying history will do Hong Kong no good,” South China Morning Post, 15 January 2003. Available on the Margaret Ng website: http://www.margaretng.com/mng_2003/01_at/scmp/2003%20articles-scmp/03jan15scmp.htm 

(2) Patricia Buckeley Ebrey, China (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(3) Han Deqiang, Introduction to The economics of competition - a critique of Paul Samuelson's (Jingji Kexue Chubanshe, 2002). Available on the China Study Group website: http://www.chinastudygroup.org/articleshow.php//?id=43 




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