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Colonialist Influences Remain In Hong Kong

Written by: Ned K. on 29 December 2019

The persistent demonstrations, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, on the streets of Hong Kong are taking place 22 years after the formal transition of Hong Kong from a colony of Britain to a Special Administration Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

The British seized the island of Hong Kong in 1842, the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 and in 1898 the New Territories were leased to Britain by the Chinese rulers in Beijing on a 99-year lease expiring in 1997.
During the 150-year colonial rule, the British ruled Hong Kong in true colonial fashion, using it as a gateway for trade with the Chinese mainland and treating the non-Europeans as second-class citizens. By the early 1900s a new class of Chinese capitalists and professionals established themselves, having arisen from large migration of Chinese merchants to Hong Kong from China following the Taiping Rebellion during which 20 million Chinese people lost their lives.
The Chinese merchant class contributed to Hong Kong becoming a center of a transnational trade network. They were tolerated by the British who had bigger fish to fry competing with other European colonial powers for Concessions in China and due to British fear of an aggressive Japanese push in to China.
However, the British tolerance of a rising Chinese capitalist class in Hong Kong only went so far. Ordinances passed by the British colonialists in 1904 and 1918 explicitly barred Chinese and Eurasians from living in Victoria Peak, the hill district on Hong Kong Island.
However, the Chinese capitalists still considered themselves superior to the Chinese workers, many of whom were migrants from the impact of the Taiping Rebellion and earlier Opium Wars. Thousands lived a squatter existence on the hillsides away from the British's Victoria Peak homes.
Despite contradictions between the new Chinese capitalists and Chinese workers and farmers, they were united against colonial powers when these powers over-reached. For example, in 1905-06 they boycotted US goods when the US government prevented Chinese labor from migrating to the US. In 1912-13, they boycotted tram and ferry services in Hong Kong when the British colonialists tried to ban Chinese coin usage. This occurred after the nationalist revolution in China of 1911. British colonialism was nervous about the political awakening in mainland China.
The intensifying revolutionary situation in southern China in particular in the 1920s gave rise to significant migration of Chinese from Guangzhou (Canton) to Hong Kong. The business elements of the migrating Chinese filled a vacuum created by a withdrawal of British capital from the East due to World War 1.
Chinese capitalists from Guangzhou set up factories in Hong Kong and Kowloon. The workers they employed were in glass making, rope making, boat building, soaps, cosmetic, flashlights, batteries, financed by Chinese owned banks.
The British colonialists still held political power and resisted Hong Kong Chinese demands for representation on the Executive Council, controlled by the British. The British also resisted demands from workers for better wages and conditions in the factories.
In the early 1920s big strikes by mechanics and seamen won big pay rises of up to 40%.
The British colonialists passed "The Societies Ordinance" prohibiting any society having "unlawful purposes or purposes incompatible with the peace and good order of the colony".
The anti-British colonialist struggles of Chinese workers in Hong Kong carried over to the 1960s with the Star Ferry riots of 1966 against increased ferry fares and 6 months of protests in 1967 over wages and working hours. Street barricades, as in the current 2019 demonstrations, were a feature of workers' actions in 1967 Hong Kong.
So, with this history of anti-colonial struggle by both workers and to a lesser extent Hong Kong capitalists and professionals, where did the resistance to the formal end of colonial rule in 1997 come from?
A sense of Hong Kong identity grew significantly during the rapid economic development of the 1970s and 1980s, an aspect of changes in economic direction towards capitalism in China following Mao's death.
Hong Kong's economy, according to writer John Carroll in his excellent book "A Concise History of Hong Kong", became increasingly interconnected with the economy of southern China, Guangzhou in particular. By the late 1980s, 3 million mainland Chinese worked in Hong Kong-owned businesses in Guangzhou. This benefited the Hong Kong business class but not necessarily Hong Kong workers, many of whom still lived as homeless people in squatter huts in the hillsides.

Blue collar women workers were hit hardest as many Hong Kong based factories relocated to southern mainland China.
By mid 1990s 90% of Hong Kong factories had moved to mainland China with manufacturing in Hong Kong dropping to 10% of GDP.
Events in Beijing in 1989 at Tiananmen Square gave rise to a demonstration of 1 million people in Hong Kong. Their hopes of a say in the running of their own region of Hong Kong come 1997 did not look any brighter than under the 150 years of British colonial rule.
Very wealthy pro-British and US imperialist Chinese business and professional interests supported the British Government move to grant full British citizenship to up to 50,000 Hong Kong residents and their families. Needless to say, none of these 50,000 were to come from the homeless workers living in slums in the hillsides or in the tiny over crowded high-rise multi-story housing estates springing up.
Fast forward to 2018 and the integration of the Hong Kong economy with mainland China had become even more pronounced. The value of imports from mainland China to Hong Kong was US$278.9 billion in 2018, 46.3% of all imports, and the value of Hong Kong domestic exports to mainland China in the same year was US$2.6 billion, 44.2% of all domestic exports.
Hong Kong was the largest source of direct foreign investment in mainland China in 2018, accounting for 54% of the national total in 2018.
In 1997 during the final stages of the Basic Law being drawn up for rules determining the 50-year transition period from 1997 to 2047, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing insisted that Hong Kong not become a base for "subversive activities against China".
This may have been a referral to groups like Falun Gong which was illegal in mainland China but still legal in Hong Kong. But it was also a broad brushstroke aimed at eliminating destabilization of China by US imperialism.
However, for many Chinese people living in Hong Kong for generations, perhaps it appeared little different from the British colonialists passing "The Societies Ordinance" in the 1920s mentioned above? The Ordinance of the British in the 1920s framed their rule by appealing to the need for "peace and good order of the colony".
The Standing Committee in 1997 framed their rule of the former British colony by warning of "subversive activities".
Maybe for some working people of Hong Kong, there was not much difference in the messages from the British colonialists in the 1920s and the Standing Committee from Beijing in 1997 at the time of transition. There was always bound to be a backward element that could accept a colonialist Ordinance denying China sovereignty over its own territory, whilst rejecting a ruling from China’s own government based on the exercise of that sovereignty.
This situation was ripe for exploitation by China's imperialist rivals, particularly the USA and Britain, as well as criminal elements such as Triad Gangs in Hong Kong who feared rule of Hong Kong by the Chinese Government.
From afar in Australia it is difficult to conclude who is the main internal driver of the current protests in Hong Kong. The US imperialists are busily stoking the fires of discontent and the Stars and Stripes flies over the heads of protesters demanding “independence” for Hong Kong.
However, one thing is certain. The Chinese Government and Communist Party of China, committed to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and following the capitalist road to prosperity for those allowed to “get rich first” would do well to read and practice Mao's "On The Ten Major Relationships" if they wish to resolve the issues in Hong Kong and indeed in some other regions of China.


Colonialist Influences Remain In Hong Kong
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