Scholars' Blog

28 September 2018
Brian Wong
By Brian Wong

On the Legacy of the British Empire: The Dangers of Romanticising An Incomplete Past in Hong Kong Politics

There is a curious undercurrent in some of the narratives propagated by pro-democracy and anti-CCP activists in Hong Kong: a stark nostalgia for the “good old days” when Hong Kong was a British colony. The rosy picture held by youths of the colonial era – often no more than three to four years old at the time of the handover – is perhaps less indicative of a genuine celebration of British colonialism than a radical expression of discontent towards perceived interference with Hong Kong’s autonomy and internal affairs by China.

In distinct juxtaposition, across both Western liberal democracies and post-colonial states in Africa, Middle East, and India alike, there have been radical calls for a comprehensive addressing of colonialism’s faulty legacy, ranging from the “Rhodes Must Fall Movement” in Oxford, to academic debates over the British legacy in the Middle East, to the organic critique evolving in India directed towards the entrenched homophobia in British colonial rule. As testimonies of victims and archives of historical documents surface, there has a paradigmatic shift within academia towards decolonising both the historical and wider study of colonialism.

British colonial rule indubitably benefited Hong Kong, through measures ranging from establishing key infrastructure and the rule of law, from propelling the city’s economic miracle in the 1960s to leading its world-class civil service. Yet just as we remember the immense gains Hong Kong derived under British rule, we must also not neglect the wider, darker sides of the colonial rule.

The British Empire was constructed with the predominant purpose of benefiting the colonial state through large-scale resource extraction and extortion from its colonies. From the Transatlantic and intra-empire slave trade that had lasted from the empire’s early days till the late 18th century, to the forced expropriation of land and natural resources in states such as India (see Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire), Egypt, and South Africa, the dominant economic policy adopted across colonies was one of infinite and concentrated accumulation of wealth serving largely the interests of the colonial administrators and British citizens.

Economic benefits that had materialised for these colonies were largely coincidental side effects to the grander imperialist scheme of benefiting a highly select group of colonial and commercial elites. The opportunity costs incurred by the stolen wealth, land, property, and technology are not insubstantial – they fundamentally disrupted the pre-colonial economies. As observed by writer Kenan Malik, India’s share of the world economy was 23% prior to its colonisation – as large as the rest of Europe altogether; by the time India acquired independence, its share had dropped to less than 4%.

More appalling, perhaps, was the track record of violence pursued under the empire, under the propagated myth of the ‘noble rule’ of the British. Colonial military leaders employed violence as a means of stifling potential opposition and imposing their rule over newly acquired territories. The most chilling feature of British governance in many areas was the colonial administration’s blatant disregard for the lives for whom they were responsible. Millions of lives were lost across major famines in both India and Ireland, where unforgivable negligence in policy-making culminated at some of the worst humanitarian crises in history.

Perhaps it got better towards the end, you would think – but you would be wrong. In 1950, British Malaya set up detainment camps for over 500,000 individuals they identified as affiliated with the ‘communist insurgency’, with an near-totality of those detained being ethnic Chinese. Caroline Elkins’ research revealed that in Kenya, 1.5 million were imprisoned in concentration camps after the crackdown upon the Mau Mau Uprising. The British exit from India was marked by a hastily implemented and faultily determined partition that led to decades of persistent conflict between Pakistan and India.

All of the above is not to deny the positive legacy of the British Empire, especially in the context of Hong Kong. Yet we must also recognise that such atrocities and wrongs cannot be brushed away with merely the view that they are ‘par for the course’ or acceptable tradeoffs in exchange for the prosperity and growth colonialism has afforded some living in the former colonies today.

Surely, you may argue, whilst British rule had been generally unjust, it was overwhelmingly positive to the development of Hong Kong? Yet reality is not so simple. The benefits that ‘better off’ colonies, such as Hong Kong, acquired from Britain were largely built off the blood, toil, sweat, and labour of their less fortune counterparts elsewhere; to reminisce and glorify the colonial project in full, therefore, would be to posit that such atrocities are justified because we are now better off. Just as we would find it hard to stomach throwing the fat man under the metaphorical trolley to save two or three strangers, we’d presumably also be uncomfortable with the proposition that the egregious acts of the empire were justified because some of us have benefited from them.

Given the legitimate frustrations of some Hongkongers with the political status quo, they’d be better off constructing a positive vision of their own, as opposed to resorting to colonial nostalgia as a political weapon. Hongkongers should be wary of unconsciously whitewashing the problematic aspects of the empire, in attempt to coopt the colonial era as a discursive tool against what they perceive to be inept governance. We owe it to the victims of colonialism to recognise the colonial project for what it is – a scheme that had brought incidental benefits propelled by often-ulterior incentives, through often deeply unforgivable crimes against humanity.


About the author
BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the University of Oxford, Kwok Scholar 2015
This article was published in South China Morning Post on 28 September 2018.