Has it been 20 years since Dad and I sat in front of the telly to watch both Britannia sail out of the harbour and China set off a magnificent fireworks’ display to celebrate getting Hong Kong becoming one of her possessions again?
Following some of the 20th anniversary commemorations through the media, notably the BBC World Service which followed them keenly, I had very mixed feelings.
Having been born British in the then-colony (whilst cheering the All Blacks today, natch) I have some nostalgia for the Hong Kong of old. If it weren’t for some aspects of colonialism, my mother wouldn’t have secured a decent job at Wellington Hospital (viz. an English and Welsh qualification) and I probably would never have learned English before the age of three. It all helped.
It was the spectre of 1997, specifically the fear of what the Communists would do after July 1, 1997, that prompted my parents to make plans to emigrate as early as the 1970s.
Of course, history as shown that largely those fears have not come to pass, although the Umbrella Revolution highlights that universal suffrage is not a reality in the city.
In a post-Brexit (or at least a post-Brexit vote) era, these past two decades also highlight that British nationalism is meaningless and little more than a tool for politicians to yield for propaganda.
You can fairly argue that that is what nationalism always has been. It could also equally be argued that nationalism is founded on some rose-coloured-glasses past, painting a picture that actually never existed.
American nostalgia looks back at a 1950s’ economic boom while ignoring segregation while British nostalgia shows a child pushing his bike up a hill to Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
Brexiters, rightly or wrongly, want to reassert a British self-determination founded on a British national character.
Most Britons I talked to, regardless of their politics, agree that if you are Hong Kong British, then you are British. That should be some solace to the families of those HKers who lost their lives fighting under the Crown in both World War II and the Falklands.
Yet there is no reality to this claim when it comes to government. Fearful of an influx of Hong Kong British emigrating to the UK, the British National (Overseas) category was invented in 1985, to replace our previous status as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. It didn’t do the wealthy any harm, mind: a lot went to Canada and Australia and took their money there. Others stayed and invested in China, and helped fuel the growth of Shenzhen as a technological powerhouse. The Hong Kong Chinese person is generally industrious, many having descended from refugees from China in 1949 who decided to make the most of the freedoms in the colony. That work ethic was certainly nothing any Briton in the UK needed to fear, yet somehow we were classed as Johnny Foreigner.
When I went to the UK in 2001 with that BN(O) passport, I had terrible trouble at immigration, denied entry when queued up with other British subjects. I wound up at the back of the queue with some white South Africans, who were less than impressed and said, ‘But that’s apartheid.’ Correspondence to the High Commission, Foreign Secretary, and Shadow Foreign Secretary went unanswered, though I did get a response from the PM.
In other words, the fears within Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech held more sway in Blair’s Britain than any sacrifice in the Falklands (even if, I should point out, Powell was not addressing immigration per se). Today, I wonder if they still do.
The Tiber was greater than the Atlantic.
Labour were quick to point out how wrong the Tories were with BN(O) back in the 1980s, but in 2001, Labour wasn’t working.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said at the time of the handover in 1997 that Britain would ‘walk with you’, that Britain had won assurances that elections in Hong Kong would be free and fair, and that if China ever failed to live up to this pledge, Britain would take the matter to the United Nations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
In 20 years, Britain has not lifted a finger.
We might get lucky like the Gurkhas one of these days if Joanna Lumley wants to come to our aid. But we certainly can’t rely on any politician.
Being British (I retained my nationality and applied before the deadline to be a BN(O)), you can see how the pro-Brexit position was hard to stomach to me. The likes of Nigel Farage and the “other” New York-born politician with funny hair, Boris Johnson, seemed to revel in some idea of British unity, but anyone from Hong Kong will tell you that in politics, that is an empty concept.
Only one of my friends who was pro-Brexit voted based on the idea of an independent Britain being more efficient when freed from the whims of Brussels, and I respect him for it; most of what I saw was aimed against immigration. The current PM’s belief in safeguarding the interests of British subjects should be cold comfort to those affected: if they couldn’t defend our interests, will others fare any better, especially with a minority government in a Conservative Party that actually remains as divided as ever?
Not that I am championing the People’s Republic of China for its handling of relations between mainlanders and Hong Kongers; it has equally been exclusive of us and our unique culture. I have already gone into the Umbrella Revolution elsewhere (even if the TV One website omitted my televised comments about Wikileaks’ reporting of US State Department interference as this goes against the western narrative), and this doesn’t need exploring again. The disappearance of publishers critical of Beijing should sound alarm bells—I note that one of them was a British subject, but the best the UK could muster was an expression of concern. I cannot help but wonder if this is the fate that awaits Britons on the Continent should something happen to them.
Some negatives aside, I am happy that when I visited a “Chinese” Hong Kong in 2006, I found a city whose character was intact, and I remarked at how unchanged that was. In subsequent visits in 2008, 2010 and 2012, that core remained. Given all the paranoia before 1997, ‘One country, two systems’ has certainly not been as bad as many of us—including those of us who moved our entire lives abroad because of those fears—predicted. I wish all HKers well on this 20th anniversary.