I have just discovered that I never really existed, at least as far as the goons in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are concerned.
In their latest effort to turn Hong Kong into a police state — it can only be a matter of time before a tear gas shell or a Taser replaces the bauhinia flower as the city’s emblem — the Chinese authorities have taken further steps to throttle the education system. For communists, education is above all about engineering the soul. So, the CCP has now gotten rid of any school textbooks that might tell the truth about Hong Kong’s past and its aspirations.
The CCP has even gone so far as to deny that Hong Kong was ever a British colony; it was simply an occupied territory, apparently. No colony means no governor, a post I held from 1992 until Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule five years later.
When I left Hong Kong, I noted that no one at the end of the 20th century would want to justify colonial rule.
However, one cannot deny that it existed in Hong Kong from the 1840s onward, with the UK acquiring part of the territory via grants and part of it on a 99-year lease. The city’s incoming chief executive, John Lee (李家超), knows this perfectly well. He served as a police officer under British colonial governors like me and must have sworn an oath to the colony’s government.
Although they lived in a colony, Hong Kong’s residents enjoyed far more freedom under British rule than they now do under Chinese communism. That is why many of them are fleeing the city and why many regard themselves as Hong Kongers or Hong Kong Chinese rather than simply Chinese.
Opinion polls that highlight this fact would of course be stopped or censored. Lee himself had a British passport until 2012, when he had to surrender it to become a government minister. His wife and two sons still have British passports. Good for them, although I am surprised that their presumed pride in China allows this.
I wonder how long it will be before the government in Beijing and its loyal servants in Hong Kong try to erase the fact that more than two-thirds of the city’s population are related to refugees who fled communist brutality to find peace, freedom and a better life in a British colony. Perhaps it must now be called a formerly occupied territory, but what an irony that it was occupied mostly by Chinese refugees from CCP rule.
The Chinese authorities’ current revisionism is of course entirely consistent with how totalitarian regimes view history. When he first came to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) instructed party and government workers to fight what communists call historical nihilism. History must be whatever the party says it is. Inconvenient facts and evidence are simply made to disappear.
This is apparent in the CCP’s attempt to erase knowledge in Hong Kong of the 1989 Tiananmen killings, when the People’s Liberation Army gunned down mostly young Chinese citizens.
The late US journalist Jonathan Mirsky, who was a friend of mine, witnessed the massacre.
A student standing next to him, listening to the sound of rifle fire, said to Jonathan: “Don’t worry. The soldiers are using blanks.”
Moments later, the young man fell dead at Jonathan’s feet, a hole in his forehead.
This murder made Jonathan even more determined to call out evil whenever he saw it, and too much of the CCP’s history is evil, including most recently the crimes against humanity it is committing against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the Hong Kong government has outlawed the commemorative vigils in the city for the Tiananmen massacre, which previously took place every year on June 4. Last year, the police even photographed people entering churches to pray for those who were murdered, to discourage Catholics from doing so.
Xi is also trying to rewrite history to help his friend Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a recent message of support to Putin, Xi and China’s state media repeated the lie that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a defensive act to counter threats to Russia from its neighbors. Xi has doubled down on his support for Russia and is now more clearly Putin’s accomplice, a point that should not be forgotten as long as Xi remains in power.
Before China broke its promises and international agreements, and moved vengefully and comprehensively to stamp out Hong Kong’s freedom, rule of law and local autonomy, the city was helping to safeguard China’s long-term “memory palace.”
Books, films, paintings and sculptures were produced to tell the story of what really happened in the past. These are all gone now. The books have been locked away or perhaps burned, the films censored, and the sculptures and paintings seized.
However, while authoritarian states such as China and Russia can suppress the academics who want to write truthfully about the past, they cannot bury the truth itself by obliterating people’s memories and experiences. History can be an insurrectionary discipline, which is why totalitarian dictatorships cannot abide it.
One day, the history of what has happened in Hong Kong will be told honestly, and in many cases, from memory. Like the history of communism in China, it cannot be suppressed forever.
That prospect terrifies Xi, and also explains why Lee’s family, like that of the city’s outgoing chief executive, Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), are likely to hold on to their British passports.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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