In Hong Kong, tributes to Elizabeth seen as a veiled blow to China
Outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong this week, bouquets and handwritten tributes piled up as a long line of people waited in the sweltering heat to pay their last respects to Queen Elizabeth II.
In the former British colony, the death of a monarch who served as a living link to Britain’s global empire marked a complicated historical moment.
The colonial era that ended a quarter century ago in Hong Kong was characterized by racism, injustice and corruption. But for many, Elizabeth’s death last week at 96 was also a reminder of Beijing’s heavy hand that supplanted British rule.
As the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was celebrated in Hong Kong and elsewhere, John Chang, 56, stood in line at the British consulate for three hours. He wrote a message of thanks to the queen and brought green and white flowers, colors he remembered the late monarch often wore.
“We miss the queen so much, especially when we experienced Chinese governance,” he said.
Chang, who is preparing to immigrate to Britain, said the tribute underscored his growing dissatisfaction with the regime in Beijing. Despite colonial abuses, he evokes the years between the handover as a period of freedom and prosperity.
It was not until the last years of British rule that greater democratic freedoms were granted to Hong Kongers. For many decades prior, the colonial government had little tolerance for political dissent and invoked anti-sedition laws that resemble those Beijing enforces in the southern Chinese city today.
China took control of Hong Kong in 1997, under a “one country, two systems” agreement meant to grant the city 50 years of economic and political autonomy. But in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has consolidated its control and aggressively cracked down on dissent, jailing hundreds of protesters, activists and journalists under a draconian national security law.
In July, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong for the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover, in a declaration of victory against anti-Beijing protests that rocked the city in 2019.
As the Chinese Communist Party has suppressed political dissent, any praise of Hong Kong’s colonial past has become potentially subversive. Earlier this year, Hong Kong authorities revised school textbooks to deny the territory was ever a British colony, instead describing it as having been temporarily occupied by foreign forces.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the subject, Hong Kong actor and singer Law Kar-ying posted a video on Chinese Twitter-like platform Weibo on Thursday, apologizing after congratulating the Queen, in a now-deleted Instagram post, for making of Hong Kong a “blessed land.”
A Beijing-backed newspaper accused anti-China forces of fabricating fond memories of colonial rule. Ta Kung Pao, another pro-Beijing publication, said in a comment on Tuesday that offering condolences to the queen signals a deep-rooted “colonial love mentality” and proves the need for “decolonization.”
But popular sentiment seems to defy such warnings. At a Hong Kong store specializing in British souvenirs, customers have increased fivefold since the Queen’s death, compared to the usual 100 a day, owner Bryan Ong said.
While he’s used to aficionados of the British monarchy, Ong said he was surprised by the depth of grief expressed publicly.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a lot of emotional, crying and teary-eyed people in my store,” the 42-year-old collector said. He said he opens an hour earlier and closes an hour later to cope with the influx of arrivals, most of whom are not looking for anything in particular.
“They just find a place to release their emotions,” Ong said. “Lucky or unlucky, my store is one of the places they chose.”
Many in Hong Kong saw the emotional response to the queen’s passing not just as a tribute to a cultural icon, but also as a subtle rebuke to China’s crackdown on civil liberties.
“Nostalgia is always about romanticizing the past, but I think nostalgia is also about criticizing the present,” said John Carroll, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong.
He said the scale of the response to Elizabeth’s death was unexpected, given Hong Kong’s thwarted relationship with British colonialism and the Queen’s limited role in local politics.
On the self-governing island of Taiwan, the response was more muted. One of the mourners who lined up at the British Office, the UK’s representative body, was a 50-year-old fabric designer from Hong Kong.
‘The Queen’s passing was like the end of an era for me,’ she said, giving only her last name, Lui, for fear of being targeted by China supporters. . “The golden age of colonial Hong Kong is totally over.”
As teenagers in Hong Kong, she and her siblings took to the streets to try to catch a glimpse of a visiting Elizabeth, but couldn’t get through the welcoming crowds. Almost 36 years later, in Taipei, she paid tribute on a rainy afternoon to the queen she never got to see.
He, who left Hong Kong last year amid Beijing’s authoritarian grip, first considered leaving after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre but remained hopeful that China would become more open and democratic over time.
During the Pro-Democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, she thought back to emigration. But it was the violent responses to protesters in 2019 that cemented his decision.
When the Queen made her first trip to Hong Kong in 1975, Lui was just 3 years old. She used to see the Queen’s face on coins and vaguely remembered wondering how her likeness had come to life.
Elizabeth’s second visit, in 1986, came two years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s eventual return to Chinese control. He still remembers the joyful atmosphere and the sound of the British military band playing Scottish bagpipes.
On Tuesday, she wrote her farewell in a condolence book.
“Thank you for giving us a civilized colonial period,” she wrote. “It’s become our good old days.”
He acknowledged that Hong Kong under colonialism was not perfect. But she couldn’t help comparing the town’s past with its present.
“Imagine you and your ex-girlfriend broke up for family reasons, but your new girlfriend blocked and bullied you, causing you to lose your freedom and financial capabilities, and even your smile,” she said. declared. “Won’t you miss your ex-girlfriend so much?” »
Yang is editor and Shen is special envoy.