Tian Feilong says the president’s insightful review of Hong Kong and Chinese history on his recent visit to the city carries an important message – it’s time for people to gain a more mature understanding of their shared destiny, or risk serious damage to ‘one country, two systems’
On his recent visit to Hong Kong to mark the handover anniversary, President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) delivered a speech reviewing at length the history of Hong Kong and the mainland. He denounced colonialism, and lauded the rise of nationalism as just and fair. How China’s top leader viewed Hong Kong’s history since 1840 – on the occasion of this historic moment – will have a great bearing on various issues relating to “one country, two systems”.
Xi’s stance and rationale are clear. And such clarity will boost efforts by the central and the SAR governments to educate the young in history and politics, to better shape their identification with the nation. It will help these youth develop, gradually, an understanding of history from the perspective of love for the nation and Hong Kong.
Five strands of thought stand out in Xi’s speech.
First, an understanding of modern Chinese history as one marked by suffering.
Xi spoke repeatedly of “suffering”, “humiliation” and “grief”, recalling our shared experience of the pain of over a century of colonial encroachment. Evoking this collective memory will help Hong Kong break through the cultural and political barriers – a colonial legacy – that impede the development of a sense that Hong Kong’s destiny is joined to the nation’s. Recontextualising Hong Kong’s colonial past would help uproot the basis of the core political ideology today of colonial identification and localism, and spur the process of “decolonialisation” at a reasonable pace, while rebuilding Hongkongers’ love for Hong Kong and the nation.
China’s modern history is one of humiliation and suffering. Though also a history of national unity and rebuilding, the remembrance of pain and suffering pervades, acting as a spur for people to make personal sacrifices and strive for a better future.
Second, a highly critical view of colonialism.
Chinese people were not alone in suffering at the hands of the colonialists, but how people responded to the experience varied from place to place. As descendents of a dignified, confident civilisation, the Chinese people mounted relentless campaigns to save the nation, introducing domestic reform and leading revolutions. These Chinese patriots learned from the West, taking in Western knowledge that was useful, but they never abdicated their Chinese pride nor bowed to Western superiority. Thus, even as they continued to learn from the West, they maintained a politicised and highly critical attitude towards colonial conquests. That they had arrived at such a position was not only because of the suffering they went through, but also because they clearly understood the dark side of colonialism. This was why the Chinese became a leading force in the fight against colonialism.
Such an attitude is lacking in Hong Kong, stalling the process of “decolonialisation”. This piece of modern Chinese history should be effectively presented to Hong Kong youth, so they can understand and identify with it. This is a key consideration for promoting national education in Hong Kong.
Third, an acceptance of the party’s leadership in the historical struggle for survival.
In his speech, Xi highlighted the historic role of the Chinese Communist Party as founders of a party and nation. It is an objective fact that history and the Chinese people both chose the Communist Party to lead the country. The years following the Opium war, after Hong Kong was ceded, were – in Xi’s words – a history “filled to the brim with the humiliation of a nation and the grief of a people”.
For years, this had seemed a fate China could not escape. Waves of reform and revolution, including the Hundred Days’ Reform and the Xinhai Revolution, all ended in failure because of military intervention and political disunity. At that critical juncture, it was the Communist Party that built a nation that allowed the Chinese to stand tall. Thus, a full view of Hong Kong history should also include the central role the party has played in the nation’s destiny – an accommodation that “one country” could reasonably ask of “two systems”.
Fourth, the spirit of adhering to logic and pragmatism is evident in the “one country, two systems” framework.
Though Hong Kong and mainland histories are inextricably linked, Hong Kong had for many years been a British colony, and has developed distinctly British political and social structures. In particular, the local elite who shape Hong Kong culture had long assimilated into British culture. Faced with such a Westernised society, designing a constitutional framework that could work after the handover was a huge challenge.
In his speech, Xi briefly recounted the history of the negotiations over the handover, and of how the spirit of “one country, two systems” eased the reunification and helped to shape the Basic Law. This reflected the Communist Party’s pragmatic and logical thinking of resolving conflicts amid changing circumstances, a feature of the party’s adherence to historical materialism. “One country, two systems” is a political experiment in which change occurs gradually.
Fifth, an expectation of an understanding of history from the perspective of love for China and Hong Kong.
Based on his recount of Hong Kong history, Xi came to three conclusions. First, the fate of Hong Kong and that of the mainland are closely linked. Second, Hong Kong, now in the embrace of its motherland, is a part of the nation’s journey to rejuvenation. Third, Hongkongers and mainlanders alike share in the dignity and glory of their great motherland. Xi’s insights were a distillation of an understanding of the historical struggle of the Chinese people, and a logical extension of the “patriots governing Hong Kong” constitutional principle laid out in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
In conclusion, President Xi’s speech was aimed at promoting an understanding of history through the perspective of love for Hong Kong and China, as an antidote to the historical understanding in Hong Kong shaped by more than 150 years of colonialism, and the anti-China localism based on such understanding.
This has major implications for the development of Hong Kong’s political system. If the opposition camp in Hong Kong refuses to move with the times and update its historical understanding to become a “loyal opposition”, and continues to push for a kind of democracy that is anti-China, rather than pro-China, it would not only put their own interests and political future at risk, but also damage Hong Kong’s prospects for democratic development.
The lack of a historical consensus and the lack of identification with the nation are the major problems with the opposition camp’s push for democracy. Xi’s history review may well point Hong Kong society in the right direction as it stands at this critical juncture of the development of “one country, two systems”.
Twenty years after the handover, Hong Kong people still have some way to go in learning to think like an adult.
Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing, and a director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies. This article is translated from the Chinese
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: