Wed, Jul 10, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Colonial flag still a symbol of prized values in Hong Kong

Britain is widely seen in Hong Kong as a beacon of civil liberties and the rule of law, leaving a legacy of independent courts and a well-oiled civil service

By Sylvia Hui  /  AP, LONDON

They smashed glass windows, sprayed rude graffiti and defaced Hong Kong’s official emblem with black paint, but of all the dramatic photographs showing hundreds of young protesters storming the Hong Kong Legislative Council building last week, one image makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing in Beijing: The British colonial flag draped aloft a podium in the council chamber.

That is not all. On a day supposed to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the “motherland,” other protesters were pictured defiantly flying giant Union Flags in the Legislative Council.

Why are some protesters — many of them millennials — harking back to a bygone colonial era, two decades after Britain handed the territory over to China as a semi-autonomous territory?

“Does it really mean that people seriously want colonial rule again? No, but I don’t think there’s any dispute among protesters that British rule was better than what we’ve got after the handover, especially in recent years,” Hong Kong journalist Lam Yin Pong (林彥邦) said.

“There might be some element of a rose-tinted lens. Perhaps some people are fantasizing about the ‘good old days,’ but what’s clear is that under colonial rule there was never a clear feeling of freedoms being gradually eroded, of a series of government actions completely against our interests,” he said.

Hong Kong has been rocked by massive street protests and its most serious political crisis after its government tried to push through legislation that would allow suspects in crimes to be extradited to mainland China for trial.

The proposed bills have triggered broader fears that China is chipping away at the freedoms and rights that Hong Kong was guaranteed for 50 years after its July 1, 1997, handover to Beijing under a “one country, two systems” deal.

Its constitution, the Basic Law, promised that Hong Kong voters should ultimately achieve universal suffrage, a goal that Beijing has pushed back indefinitely. That has long caused widespread resentment, especially among the territory’s increasingly disenfranchised young people, but Hong Kong never enjoyed democracy under 155 years of British rule, either.

Governors at the time were appointed in London and legislators were not directly elected to the Legislative Council until 1991. Most of the council’s seats were either appointed or chosen by powerful professional groups.

The territory’s last British governor, Chris Patten, managed to push through democratic reforms only in the final years before his 1997 departure.

Even so, Britain was — and still is — widely seen in Hong Kong as a beacon of Western-style civil liberties and the rule of law, leaving a legacy of independent courts, a well-oiled civil service and institutions such as an anti-corruption watchdog. The colonial years saw steady economic growth and its free-market policies meant the territory flourished as one of the world’s leading business hubs.

“I miss the British-Hong Kong government before 1997. The British helped us build a lot of things: separation of powers, our rule of law, our entire social system,” said Alexandra Wong (王鳳瑤 ), 63, a protester who has often been seen raising the Union Flag at demonstrations and carried one into the Legislative Council building on Monday last week.

“What I can do is to hopefully encourage young people to continue to persist” in fighting for their rights, she said.

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