Hong Kong’s Symbolic Meaning to Chinese

By Juilin Lu

After months of demonstration, the people of Hong Kong’ not seem to have shifted Beijing politics. Millions of Hong Kong citizens are pushing for a democratic government, and the government answered their calls with tear gas and rubber bullets. As Beijing decided to take a hard-line approach toward this issue,  it is unlikely that it will accept any compromise with the protestors. Why are Beijing and the Chinese government so stubborn with respect to Hong Kong? The reason lies in China’s modern history.

Beginning in the mid-18th century, China started interacting with Westerners more frequently, but involuntarily. After the Opium War, foreign powers swarmed into the dynastic empire and exploited her land, her resources, and her people. This trend began after Great Britain signed the Treaty of Nanking with the Qing government, forcing the Qing dynasty to cede Hong Kong permanently. Great Britain further extended its sphere of influence along the entire Yangtze River, taking control of the most important trade route during that time.

Following in the steps of Great Britain, Russia took the North East and Mongolia, Germany took Shandong, Japan took Taiwan, and France took Yunnan and the South. In the river shores of Shanghai, different countries created their settlements. Different countries exercised their own laws in their respective settlements and deployed security forces to enforce those laws. These coercive political dynamics continued after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the rise to power of the Republic of China, and only truly ended after World War II.

During this period, China was not a complete country. A state’s most important character is the monopolization of the use of force, and China clearly struggled in this regard. The government’s policies could not be implemented, taxes couldn’t be collected, and all Chinese citizens were viewed as second class citizens. In this sense, China lost all her dignity as a nation-state under the occupation of Western powers. Hong Kong was the most extreme case, as it was ceded to Great Britain permanently. Under British rule, the governor of Hong Kong was appointed directly by the British government. Hong Kong had a different form of government, used a different unit system, and even spoke a different language from China. Hong Kong, under the transformation of Great Britain, has become completely different from the mainland.

In this context, the reason for China’s strong stance is apparent and understandable. After World War II, China regained control over her territory except for Hong Kong, and Hong Kong is the last trace of China’s painful past. Through their demonstrations, Hong Kong citizens are hoping to gain democracy and a liberal government. However, this contradicts China’s effort of trying to erase traces of foreign influence in Hong Kong. Beijing believes that it is reasonable to transform Hong Kong’s government to one similar to the Chinese style of governance, as this is the way Hong Kong would have been if it hadn’t been forcefully taken by Great Britain. 

China’s hard stance on Hong Kong’s issue is understandable. After being oppressed in the last century, she is eager to prove herself again and take back what once belonged to her. Understanding the history of China is crucial to dealing with its politics on the international stage. During the Hong Kong protests, the demonstrators didn’t take the history into account and took a more aggressive approach, causing the situation to escalate.

While China believes that it is taking something that righteously belonged, Hong Kong protestors also believe they are doing what is right in pursuing democracy. Both parties are not thinking of the other’s position, which further exacerbates the other side’s grievances. If Hong Kong had considered the history and taken a different approach, perhaps more a moderate one, it might have allowed Hong Kong to achieve part of their goal.

Photo courtesy of 中文: 原作者: 謝纘泰 (Wikimedia Commons).

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