FOR today’s installment, I am turning back the clock a bit — to October of 2014, to be exact — because student of history that I am, I find something deeply disturbing about the current protests happening in Hong Kong, and even more alarming about the rest of the world’s reactions to them.
In 2014, the mass protests became known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” and the recent protests, though triggered specifically by public dissent against a new extradition law that would have made it easier for China to retrieve fugitives from Hong Kong, are essentially the flaring up of unresolved five-year-old democratic angst. Now, as in 2014, the protests are not really about displeasure, with a specific law or the behavior of the China-approved local government, but a desperate desire to hang onto Hong Kong’s “unique” status.
Here’s the unpopular opinion: that unique status is the result of a frankly horrifying historical injustice, and is a grave insult to China. The fairest, most ethical solution would be for China to erase Hong Kong’s contrived border, and take back the city that was stolen from them in the 19th century.
At the height of the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, I explained how Hong Kong, as we know, it came to be (I only mention that here lest I be accused of plagiarizing myself):
“Hong Kong Island became a British colony as a result of China’s losing the First Opium War in 1839 to 1842; in effect, the city was a war prize. During the Second Opium War (1856 to 1860), British control extended into Kowloon, and in 1861, after the Convention of Peking between China and Britain, France, and Russia — one of the ‘unequal treaties’ signed during the ‘Century of Humiliation,’ when China’s sovereignty was progressively eroded by the Western powers and Japan — Great Britain formally took over all of Kowloon Peninsula. The Second Convention of Peking in 1898, in which Britain signed the 99-year lease for Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories, came about as a result of China’s losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895; the British simply took advantage of China’s weakened position to expand their foothold.”
However, I left the best (or rather worst) part out of that earlier post. From the 17th through the 19th century, Britain had a trade relationship with both India and China, with the former, of course, being under the English bootheel as a colony. Trade between the UK and India was more or less bidirectional; grains, spices, cotton, precious metals and other resources flowed from India to Britain, with British manufactured goods flowing back to India. From China, the British imported tea, silk and porcelain. The problem was that the Chinese had no use for British goods, so most everything was paid for in silver, a situation that eventually created a serious trade deficit for Britain.
The British East India Company developed a brilliantly monstrous solution, which was to export opium produced in India to China. Within a relatively short period of time, the huge volume of opium sent to China had reversed the trade deficit and had addicted a considerable proportion of the Chinese population. The Opium Wars were the result of the Chinese imperial government’s attempt to stop the opium trade, a noble cause but a futile one in the face of English military might.
That little piece of economic heritage is left out of the context of the protests in Hong Kong today. And little wonder that it is: not to put too fine a point on it, but what the people of Hong Kong are fighting for is their continued privilege to be the benefactors of the ill-gotten gains of the largest drug-trafficking operation in history.
It is wrong, and though we may fervently hope it is possible to right the wrong without bloodshed or violence, the wrong must be righted. The full assimilation of Hong Kong by China will be disruptive; Hong Kong is after all one of the world’s economic powerhouses, and being out of business for even a little while will have an impact on the whole world. But China is not going to give up on it and it shouldn’t. If it were any other country, the global clamor for justice would have delivered the city long ago.