By Devon Rowcliffe
After dozens of Hong Kong democracy protesters forced their way into the Legislative Council last Monday – assuming they weren’t agents provocateurs as Martin Lee has speculated – a colonial flag was draped over the LegCo president’s desk.
This choice of the historical symbol, which has re-emerged with each wave of protests in recent years, was fraught with meaning: Frustration with China’s increasing encroachment into Hong Kong domestic matters, the erosion of free speech, and the faltering quest to expand democracy as proffered in the Basic Law. To some, the symbol also represented waving a red cloth at the authoritarian bull.
But the colonial flag is an odd choice for democracy advocates. Although Britain enshrined many human rights in Hong Kong, the colonial presence was more self-serving than benevolent. The British ultimately came to Hong Kong to enrich their coffers and to install themselves as a new class of subjugating elites, not to empower local residents.
It’s misguided for any Hongkongers who seek democracy to wrap themselves in the archaic flag of a power that took 150 years to introduce direct elections. Even if recently-unearthed documents that claim Britain attempted to begin Hong Kong’s democratisation in the 1950s are to be believed, the colonial power still took more than 110 years before it decided locals deserved similar rights to those enjoyed on the British Isles.
While Chinese rule of Hong Kong since 1997 has triggered a decline in freedoms, that doesn’t mean the previous colonial period should be viewed with an uncritical lens. Given that Hong Kong democracy activists seek the right to self-determination through universal suffrage (even if in a special administrative region under a larger power), neither regime’s record should be heralded.
The British era shouldn’t be praised by those with lofty democratic ideals simply because that period was less repugnant than the present. If Hongkongers want the ability to determine their own affairs (as laid out in the Basic Law), why romanticise a period in history in which only minor progress was made – and mostly at the eleventh hour?
When speaking of identity, it’s increasingly common to hear Hong Kong residents assert they are neither Chinese nor British, but Hongkongers. If this is the case, wrapping oneself in a British colonial flag sends conflicting signals about the veracity of such claims.
Any symbol meant to represent Hong Kong’s democratisation should be more than just a proverbial middle finger extended to Beijing. Most Hongkongers are happy for the region to remain a special part of China as long as unique rights and freedoms are maintained.
They don’t pine for pre-1997 rule; instead, they strive for a more democratic future that demands liberties beyond what Britain previously granted.
As such, preserving a vestige like the colonial flag doesn’t do democracy activists any favours. Continuing to employ the flag in 2019 sends confusing signals that Beijing can exploit for propaganda purposes, by suggesting democracy advocates are secretly part of a Western conspiracy meant to suppress China’s modern emergence and reinstate colonialism.
Although it lacks organisational structure, a formal leader or official symbols, the Hong Kong democracy movement should collectively adopt a new emblem: one that looks to the future rather than the past, and is based on hope rather than mourning.
Although variations of the official Bauhinia flag – either as white or yellow on a black background – do acknowledge the current political arrangement with China, they’re both inherently reactionary symbols that lament Chinese violations of the Basic Law.
Instead, a majority of democracy advocates should attempt to concur on new imagery that represents the hope of a future they collectively aspire to. They should turn away from the past, and resist the temptation to provoke or react to Beijing.
Hong Kong’s colonial flag does not represent the future sought by those who have taken to the streets in recent years. It’s time to put the British relic aside with other mementos from the pre-handover era, and instead, embrace Hong Kong’s next epoch with a fresh symbol that reflects the optimism of what the region should become.
The democracy movement’s new symbol – if one can be agreed upon – should solely reflect a Hong Kong worth dreaming of.
Devon Rowcliffe is a political commentator in Toronto who has written for Asia Times, Harbour Times, Korea Times and Straits Times (as well as several other East Asian newspapers with “Times” in the name). He holds a master’s degree in political science and Asian studies.