Is Hong Kong still a colony today? The anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong has now been turned into a movement for the “liberation,” sometimes translated as “restoration’ of Hong Kong and “revolution of our times” (光復香港/時代革命). This movement has its origin in the British colonial legacy in Hong Kong and the island’s current semi-colonial status.
One of the last colonies of Great Britain post-World War II, Hong Kong aligned with the U.S.-backed Kuomintang of Taiwan. The alliance, with its “Project National Glory” (國光計畫) to recapture the mainland, enclosed and isolated the mainland People’s Republic of China (光復大陸), while at the same time serving the interests of the United States and United Kingdom.
Approaching the 1997 Hong Kong repatriation, China’s economic situation had improved enormously, and the majority of working people in Hong Kong dissented against British rule. They were vocal in their criticism of Britain’s real estate policy of selling land to real estate developers at high prices only for the proceeds to be taken back to the U.K., and they despised the police forces who enforced British laws.
However, after 1997, the Chinese socialist government relied on the local bourgeoisie and the same colonial police and court systems to rule over the repatriated area. The people of Hong Kong were furious with the Chinese government for abandoning them and allowing the legacies of colonialism to continue. As a result, Hong Kong remains China’s only territory where private property rights are institutionalized. To this day it is recognized as a separate entity from the rest of China.
As an offshore financial center, Hong Kong attracts Chinese capital and wealthy elites around the globe. High finance has driven up property values to the point where average real estate prices have increased three fold since 1997.
As factories and investments moved to mainland China, and as the Chinese bourgeois elite continued to amass their wealth from the change, working and living conditions in Hong Kong worsened. On the other hand, when the mainland Chinese started to arrive, Hong Kong’s self-identifying British subjects treated them as poor foreigners who came to take their jobs and already limited resources. To say “restore” (光復) is not the same as saying “liberate.” And so to say, “Restore Hong Kong” is like saying “Make America Great Again.” It is the same as anti-immigrant rhetoric permeating the U.S. today.
Today in Hong Kong, U.S. and U.K. multinational capital dominate the island. The local Chinese bourgeoisie and ruling class have been apprentices in serving multi-national capital and keeping China at bay.
The colonial uniqueness of the Hong Kong Chinese has defined the island’s education system and its curriculum to this day. This system cultivates a significant portion of Hong Kong Chinese who recognized themselves as proud British subjects and know nothing of Hong Kong’s cession to Britain. They hate and look down on Chinese from the mainland.
Within the judicial system, the courts are full of British and other European judges. In this semi-colonial situation, the people of Hong Kong have limited options to choose from, moving to the U.K. to become second-class citizens or, on the other hand, moving to the mainland and becoming an equivalent to the mainland Chinese whom they look down on. Those at the bottom have nowhere to go. Frustrations are accumulating.
It has been claimed that recent riots, mass demonstrations and marches are examples of a “Color Revolution” that is trying to undermine the mainland Chinese government and its rule over Hong Kong. No doubt Hong Kong’s NGOs, political parties and its liberal democrats are in bed with the American and British governments. Some of the figureheads from the “Umbrella Movement,” as it has come to be called, have directly received funding and advice from the United States and Britain. At the same time, the Hong Kong government is colluding with multinational capital centered in the United States and other powerful European countries.
At a global level, U.S. political and economic influence is declining. The American and European ruling class, backed by multinational capital, are trying aggressively to maintain the existing global political-economic order while competing against each other, and facing China’s rising economic power, exemplified by its global infrastructure project, the One Belt and One Road Initiative.
If China’s economic connections and influence in Hong Kong are threatening U.S. interests, they have subsequently created political unrest among the local Chinese bourgeoisie and the ruling class who want to maintain their relationship with the United States and Britain. However, the majority of Hong Kong’s working people cannot bear the neoliberal economy any further.
Rents in Hong Kong are equivalent to San Francisco, with the average two-bedroom apartment exceeding $3000 a month. Many are sleeping in McDonalds’ restaurants, stigmatized as “McRefugees.” One in three elderly Hong Kong residents lives below the poverty line. In 2016, the median monthly household income of the top 10 percent was 43.9 times of the bottom 10 percent, while the top five tycoons earned over $3 billion (HK$23.6) in dividends alone in 2016 and 2017. The majority of Hong Kong’s workers, women, elderly and ethnic minorities are poor and toil long hours on a daily basis just to survive. The riots and demonstrations are homegrown.
The U.S. decline and local frustrations have left the ruling class in Hong Kong in disarray. Some have close ties with the United States and Britain. Others rely on business with China. The so-called “revolution of our times” has been cultivated by the U.S .and the U.K. for a long time. It taps into the frustration of the population, especially among the youth. It propagates the fear that China will take over the legal system and that anyone who commits a crime will potentially be extradited to China. It also puts forward the Western agenda in the name of democracy. The movement as it exists now does not aim to improve the abhorrent living and working conditions of the people in Hong Kong, nor does it call for a systemic change in the remnant colonial education and the legal system.
The situation in Hong Kong today is the result of colonization. It has happened in South Asian and the Middle East as well. Whenever Britain, as an imperialistic power, left its colonies, it did its best to divide the people there and to continue to assert its influence and make trouble for its own benefit. So what should be done by people in Hong Kong to address this crisis, with the understanding that China can easily send troops over to crush the unrest based on the agreement reached in 1997?
There are several possible options. A call for independence, as some of the demonstrators are advocating, is a call for a return to colonial rule. A call to maintain the status quo is to continuously act as an illegitimate child of China or Britain and to be exploited by foreign capital. To simply change the legal and educational systems in aligning with China is a call to be a part of China sooner. But demands for democratic rights, the right to independently organize and equal rights for all workers, and a pledge to fight against pro-developer and pro-real estate policies, against nativism, against discrimination directed at migrants from the mainland and countries like the Philippines is a step toward real systemic change.
Kai Wen Yang is a sociologist who teaches about immigration, displacement and labor history at SUNY Binghamton. He is completing a dissertation on the history of displacement in Chinatown and the Lower East Side and is involved in anti-displacement and workers’ rights organizing.