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Hong Kong: from a barren rock to a barren rock

Published 23 Mar 2020

On Tuesday 17 March 2020, the widely published author and former Sydney University professor John Wong addressed AIIA NSW on the historical and political context that led to the ongoing Hong Kong protests. In his forthcoming book, “Hong Kong 1841-2020: From a barren rock to a barren rock?” Wong outlines how the former British colony began as an unassuming island and would be reduced to a bleak version of itself in the years to come if China’s increasing hold over it continues.

Wong initially summarised British colonisation of Hong Kong from 1841 to 1898 as a “Pandora’s box” which encompassed the 1860 annexation of Kowloon Peninsula and the Second Opium War 1856-1860. He then moved to explain China’s “tampering with the Pandora’s box” during the lead up and following the British handover in 1997. Under Wong’s theory, it is the lifting of the lid on this Pandora’s box that has unleashed the present crisis.

Wong highlighted strong similarities in images from the 1989 scenes from Tiananmen Square and those we witnessed last year in Hong Kong. Making reference to the work of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate who campaigned to end China’s communist one-party rule, Wong emphasised the long-lasting effects of colonisation in the region.

The current protest movement is by no means the first in Hong Kong’s history. In 2014 when China decided to exercise comprehensive rule over Hong Kong, it was the younger generations that took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands. When Beijing initiated amendments to the law on extradition of offenders on 26 March 2019, this became the catalyst for protests of 12000 people on 31 March 2019. By 16 June, two million people were participating in protests of which “any other government in the world would take notice…but not China.” The district council elections held on 24 November 2019 “exposed [China’s] complete lack of understanding of the people under its care… In a stunning sign of support of the protests…more than half of the 452 seats [in the elections] flipped from pro-Beijing…”

Wong however is wary of the newly appointed Director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, Luo Huining. He believes that Huining’s past record bodes ill; he ordered the destruction of over 2000 crosses of Christian churches whilst he was a provincial party secretary in China. Considering Hong Kong’s strongly Christian population, Wong finds this particularly concerning.

The audience then asked Professor Wong a number of insightful questions. One member questioned whether the “imperialist sins” of the British excuse the “sins” of China, returning again to the importance of colonialism as a basis for current conflict. Wong replied with a personal anecdote from his time at Cambridge completing his undergraduate honours. At the time, he conducted intensive archival research to successfully prove that the British had waged the Opium Wars – only to have his honours failed. Wong underlined that the British found it difficult to admit to the harms of their colonial history. China was the same.

In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, another audience member asked how this latest development was affecting the protest movement. Wong noted that the protests had quietened for the moment due to safety issues. This had left the field to the more extremist protestors during this outward lull. There have been a number of recent police arrests of groups of young people making bombs, and purchases of live weapons and ammunition have increased. Meanwhile, China is only offering economic solutions to this political problem and thus the tension remains high.

On questions surrounding the future importance of Hong Kong to Beijing and whether Beijing is hoping Hong Kong will simply “destroy itself” and cede its international business role to a Chinese city, Wong strongly emphasised that Hong Kong is “still vitally important to China” and is one of two essential links in the Chinese economy and their business transactions. But while Beijing would desperately want to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity, “Hong Kong is absolutely full of spies, so China wants to control the place.” By prioritising security over common law, China is destroying what makes Hong Kong such an international and financial hub.

Wong agreed that the recent riots have had social as well as political drivers, particularly with housing. Wong explained that young Hong Kongers were struggling to buy homes as property prices have been pushed up by rich Chinese nationals buying them up. In addition, young people’s job prospects are low and this is creating heightened frustration and desperation.

Wong concluded his talk on a pessimistic note, stating “I’m not very optimistic about the future of Hong Kong. If things continue…it will be a barren rock, intellectually…spiritually…it will be a barren rock.”

Report by Evangeline Larsen,
AIIA NSW intern

Professor Wong (left) with AIIA NSW intern Evangeline Larsen and President Ian Lincoln