The protests in Hong Kong reveal the insecurities at the heart of the Chinese Communist regime

China’s leaders are haunted by the past dismemberment of the nation, its disintegration and poverty

Tear gas fired at Hong Kong protesters

To properly understand China’s frustrations with Hong Kong it is enough to realise that for the authorities in Beijing it is a living reminder of a rather humiliating era in their nation’s history. Now an autonomous “special administrative region” within the People’s Republic, it once comprised a British crown colony and other territories “leased” for 99 years back in 1898. When the British finally cleared out in 1997, they left behind, after some nifty diplomatic footwork, a number of fairly weak democratic and independent institutions, including the judiciary.

The proposed new law on “extradition” to the mainland is seen, rightly, as compromising the freedom of the separate court system in Hong Kong, and the liberty of the citizens of the territory. Human rights activists and other critics of the regime could be exported to neighbouring Chinese provinces for trial. Britain may be a treaty guarantor of the human rights of Hong Kong’s 7 million people, but it is, of course, powerless to do anything to help them.

In fact it was something of a wonder that, in the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, fanatical Red Guards didn’t just march into Hong Kong and kick the imperialists out. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher once asked her civil servants, rather fancifully, whether the British could hang on to the original colony when the lease ran out. The Iron Lady was told that, unlike the Falklands, the place could be neither defended nor liberated after an invasion.

The Chinese must also wonder why they might compromise with a nation that is taking such a hostile line (to their eyes) on Huawei, on Chinese domestic policy in Tibet, and on the treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority in the western province of Xinjiang. Sending the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier the Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea might also seem a slightly provocative gesture.

When the British to try behave like the global power they no longer are, the Chinese are merely reminded of their past subjugation. Seeing President Xi at a naval display out of his usual lounge suit and in a high-buttoned Mao jacket the other week was “a moment”, a symbol of how China is taking on the trappings of a superpower – and it has the world’s largest economy to back it up. It need not be pushed around by Trump’s America, let alone May’s Britain. And certainly not in its own back yard – Hong Kong.

The British started running Hong Kong for their own commercial and strategic benefit in the century before last – an age when virtually every western power was grabbing to take chunks of a feeble and backwards old imperial China into their control, especially along the coast.

The Bavarian inspired Tsingtao lager and the charming “French Quarter” in Shanghai are more harmless remnants of a time when China was the victim of “unequal treaties”, “concessions” and subjugation. The British even used opium as the means of addicting much of China’s population to take control. The Japanese subjected their Chinese colonies to the most bestial treatment.

If the Chinese Communist party has one aim in life it is to maintain and strengthen the national unity that was, more or less, recovered when Mao took power in 1949. It frets about it to the point of paranoia. China’s leaders are haunted by the past dismemberment of the nation, its disintegration and poverty. Still-independent Taiwan, a relic of the pre-1949 Chinese civil war, Tibet, Xingjian and Hong Kong are all places they look at with a mixture of historical resentment and just a touch of present-day fear.

It takes many forms. Some are petty – the old colonial era pillar boxes in Hong Kong, bearing the royal ciphers of Victoria, two King Edwards, two King Georges and Elizabeth II are being replaced with new Chinese state versions. On a more serious scale we see what they are doing to Hong Kong’s fine independent legal system. It, too, will be replaced in due course.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in