Matthew Brooker

Hong Kong Was Never a Colony. Who Knew?

Hong Kong was never a British colony, schoolchildren in the city will soon be taught. That may come as a surprise to the many parents who remember British governors, the Queen’s head on coins and stamps, and numerous other relics of a 150-year colonial presence. Behind the apparent absurdity is a deadly serious program to inculcate youth with the Communist Party’s view of history.

Four sets of new textbooks say the city wasn’t a colony because the Chinese government didn’t recognize the 19th-century treaties that handed the UK control of the city, the South China Morning Post reported this week. In a statement to Bloomberg News, the Education Bureau said publishers were responsible for selecting “correct and appropriate materials” and teachers were required to be “professional, objective and impartial” in instructing students. The statement didn’t directly address the issue of Hong Kong’s colonial status.

In fact, this has been a longstanding position for Beijing, and one that has support in international law. China regards the treaties in question as unequal and therefore invalid because the Qing Dynasty’s rulers were forced to sign them. Were they unequal? Few can doubt it. The Qing government had little choice after losing the Opium Wars that Britain, then the world’s supreme naval power, waged on China in 1839-42 and 1856-60. Article 52 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, an international agreement that governs the rules of such things, states: “A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.”

China successfully lobbied to have Hong Kong and Macau removed from the United Nations’ list of colonies in 1972, after taking over the UN seat formerly held by Taiwan. Beijing’s concern was that colonial status might pave the way for Hong Kong to become independent. Under the UN’s Declaration on Decolonization, passed in 1960, colonized peoples were entitled to the right to self-determination via referendum over whether they would become an independent state, join with another country, or stay with the colonial motherland, as Ho-fung Hung, a political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University, recounts in City on the Edge: Hong Kong under Chinese Rule, published in April.

It’s a semantic distinction then, but a significant one. The salient question for teaching this concept in the classroom is whether the materials will be subject to critical scrutiny. China’s post-Qing governments may have been morally right to reject the 19th century treaties as unequal. It is nevertheless a historical fact that the 1842 Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong in perpetuity to Britain, and that the then-Chinese government continued to recognize and accept the treaty as valid for seven decades. Will pupils be given the full picture?

On this score, recent developments don’t offer cause for optimism. New textbooks issued last year listed Taiwan among China’s provinces, without noting that the island is a self-governing territory outside of Beijing’s control. Teachers have been fired and blacklisted from the profession for activities deemed to undermine national unity. The message is that there is only one version of history: Beijing’s.

The background to all this is the 2019 pro-democracy protests, which prompted China to impose a national security law on Hong Kong the following year that it has used to crush political opposition. Officials blamed “liberal studies,” a school subject intended to foster critical thinking skills, for encouraging students to support the protests. Liberal studies has been replaced with a course titled “citizenship and social development” that places a heavy emphasis on patriotic (that is, pro-Communist Party) education. The revamped textbooks reportedly adopt the government’s account of the 2019 unrest, saying external forces were behind the protests — a dubious assertion for which there is scant evidence.

Officials refer to this process as “decolonization” (itself a contradiction in terms, for if Hong Kong was never a colony, how can it be decolonized?). In practice, what it means is forcing the population to accept Communist Party dogma on pain of loss of liberty and livelihood, and in contravention of the promises Beijing made on resuming control of Hong Kong in 1997 to preserve the city’s way of life unchanged.

At root here is a clash of world views, between the philosophical approaches of the open society and the Leninist system. Is truth an objective quality to be discovered through inquiry and rational discourse, or a political decision, a fact to be created by action and force of will? The reality that Hong Kong was a de facto British colony for 150 years is less important than making the city’s young people believe they have never left (and therefore never can) the Chinese family.

Hong Kong’s outgoing leader Carrie Lam has started to grudgingly admit that her government’s ultra-strict Covid policies have weakened the city’s status as a financial hub. She has remained steadfast in her support of the national security law, though. My own conversations indicate that education is a cardinal concern for many Hong Kongers joining the city’s record exodus; they are simply unwilling to expose their children to Communist Party indoctrination. The more authorities rewrite Hong Kong’s own history to deny what people can see with their own eyes, the more it will encourage them to depart.