Whilst Britain seems to have forgotten much about the principles of liberty it once espoused, Hong Kong is fighting hard to preserve them.
Under British rule Hong Kong had never had general elections, although its last British Governor Chris Patten (who is fondly remembered by many in Hong Kong) managed to push through democratic reforms in the last few years of British control. Liberty and democracy are not synonymous, however. Hong Kong had received a number of freedoms under British rule, including freedom of press and a judicial system based on English Law – the liberties enjoyed by those across the Empire both in the past and now.
With the securities of British rule Hong Kong had flourished in the latter half of the twentieth century economically, becoming a centre for international trade. With worries arising about Hong Kong losing the freedoms it had, Britain had signed with China the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. In essence, this was an attempt to keep the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong for when it would be handed back to the People’s Republic of China. The handover took place on the 1st of July 1997, yet in recent years China has threatened the freedoms it promised the people of Hong Kong could keep. The Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2017 had announced the Joint Declaration void.
A kind of revolution is occurring in Hong Kong as a reaction to these threats, though it is natural conservatives should look on revolutionary causes with scepticism; a natural predilection in the face of roars for ‘change!’ to whisper ‘maybe’ guides us away from rapid, run-away endeavours, and points us back at the known, the stable, and the secure.
This being said, the phenomenon of a seemingly tautological ‘conservative revolution’ is not all that impossible. Indeed, the revolutions in 1774 in America and 1989 in what was Czechoslovakia attest to such an impossible fact. Consider, for instance, that Edmund Burke defended what he saw as the American colonists’ ‘historic liberties’ (inherited, mind, from their British antecedents) in the face of greater and greater taxation and lack of representation under the reigns of Kings George II and III. Burke saw, rightly so, that the historic liberties and freedoms of the predominantly British colonists were being abused in the forms of such legislation as the Stamp Act, and that the constitution of such a community was being violated.
Similarly, in Prague in 1989, after decades of oppression and restriction by the Soviet Union, the Czech and Slovak people rebelled against abuses of their historic liberties and culture.
What we are seeing in Hong Kong is nothing short of a conservative revolution. The people are revolting against what they see as abuses of their historic liberties.
But from where have these liberties derived? What is it that marks out the people of Hong Kong, extraordinarily similar to the people of China, from their contemporaries? Not to suggest that the inhuman oppression of the Chinese people by their government is in any way legitimately derived from their cultural histories. But this divide has an origin, and I think we can reasonably derive that this origin can be found in the Imperial inheritance the Hong Kong people have had passed down to them from the British, like an acorn from the British oak, grown mighty in the ready Hong Kong soil.
No clearer proof of this derives from the protestors’ use of the Union Flag as their symbol of choice. As commentators across the internet have remarked, it is because the Union Flag is a symbol, for many across the world, of liberty, accountable government, and the rule of law; all things that the Chinese government has abused.
When one considers that the American revolutionaries rallied around the same principles, derived from their historical inheritance as British people, it is no surprise that the Hong Kong people are now doing the same. Strange, really, that it is Britain’s colonists, not Britain’s own people, who are so prepared to stand up for her historical inheritance.
Photo by Mitch Altman on Flickr.