Hong Kong Handover: China's era of humiliation nears its close

Changing Lives: Christine Loh (above), one of Hong Kong's leading democrats, says Britain should apologise for the past
At the stroke of midnight on 30 June, British sovereignty ends after 155 years and Chinese rule begins. This represents a critical symbolic moment because it touches how people feel about the past and the future.

The loss of Hong Kong in the 1840s represented the beginning of the end of imperial China. It also signified the painful start of the Middle Kingdom's modern era. Now, with the return of Hong Kong to China, perhaps it will complete a cycle of turbulent transformation for an old civilisation, dragging itself out of self-imposed isolation.

The experience of having been humbled by foreign powers last century still weighs uncomfortably on the collective Chinese psyche. Despite its grand achievements and long history, China lost confidence in itself when its efforts were so inadequate in resisting foreign aggression. Its psyche is still in agony and in need of healing.

The re-taking of Hong Kong, therefore, has great symbolic significance for China. It closes a long chapter of national shame. Britain might well wish to gloss over the same period of history when its warships and troops despoiled a weak nation.

At this significant moment, will China be in a vengeful or magnanimous mood? Will it want to publicly censure Britain's plundering past? As for Britain, might it feel that there is nothing to apologise about since everything happened a long time ago, and under British tutelage, Hong Kong has become a successful, modern, city?

I would neither wish to hear China dwell too heavily on the past about British treachery, nor hear Britain deliver an apologia about its colonial benevolence.

If Britain can bring itself to do so, its government should say sorry about the past. This could help break China's defensive armour. It would also be good if Britain can be sensitive to how Hong Kong people feel.

If China can put aside its own fear of inadequacy, its leaders should be gracious, and forward-looking. During the final hours of the transition, Chinese leaders have a very special window of time to speak about the aspirations of the Chinese people for a modern and confident China. This moment is not to be missed: it will set the tone of the China of the 21st century.

Both Britain and China have choices about how they wish to conduct themselves. Both governments can choose to beat their breasts in self-righteous manner, or they can choose to treasure a significant moment in honour of their people. I would much prefer the latter. I would like to say goodbye to the British cordially.

I would like to welcome China in the hope that with efforts on both sides, Hong Kong and China can iron out the problems inherent in the two very different societies. A display of openness and graciousness from China will do much to enhance the birth of Hong Kong as a special administrative region.

Meanness, such as excluding democrats from the incoming government's celebrations, will only show that China still lacks the self-confidence it so desires.

This is the first in an occasional series by Christine Loh, chair of the Citizens Party, on Hong Kong before and after the handover.