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(Published in Taipei Times)

Hong Kong after Handover

Hong Kong is a story narrated by different epic poets. They rarely come to agreement, yet each claims to be the sole author of this story. Despite the end of the British rule in 1997, it is curious that people with the most divided prospects of the city – the Chinese officials, the leftists, as well as the localists – coincidentally claim that Hong Kong is not yet decolonized. Nevertheless, we should not be misguided by the words, for the different parties base their judgments on mutually opposing ideologies. Once we look into their respective interpretations of the statement “Hong Kong is not yet decolonized”, we discover no common ground but only profound ruptures, which fuel the political unrest in this former crown colony.

The narratives diverge at how different authors interpret the handover of Hong Kong to the Communist China. The Chinese officials, naming this event unanimously as Hong Kong’s “return to the motherland”, regard the reunification with this ceded territory as the end of colonial era, the “shameful history” of the modern China. However, the constant resistance to the will of Beijing and the strengthening of a local identity teach the central government a lesson, according to which “the hearts of Hong Kongers” have not yet returned to the motherland together with the territory. “De-sinofication is at work, but there is no decolonization”, lamented Chen Zuoer, a top Beijing official in charge of Hong Kong affairs. Blaming the colonial legacy, especially the so-called “colony-complex” of the citizens, for the unpopular Chinese authority has long been a consensus in the government offices. As a result, the speeding up of “decolonization”, for example through the introduction of patriotic education, is prioritized on the political agenda in Hong Kong, which ironically leads to more trenchant oppositions from activists across the political spectrum.

Localists in Hong Kong

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy activists, especially the leftists whose motives are more equipped with postcolonial theory, have their own version of why Hong Kong is still in a sense under colonial rule. In contrast to the official ideology which goes hand in hand with the centralization of power in Beijing, for the leftists, decolonization means rather rectifying the autonomy of the people who was once structurally oppressed. However, hindrances are large out of both institutional and ideological reasons. On the one hand, the Chinese leaders deliberately preserve an executive-dominance system,1 together with limited checks and balances of the police force as well as certain privileged indigenous groups, which are all policies and measures inherited from the British colonial days. On the other hand, as the sociologist Lui Tai-lok describes metaphorically, there is a widespread wishful thinking – among policymakers as well as investors and residents – to “freeze” Hong Kong,2 namely to keep the old laissez-faire economy intact in order to secure the stability and prosperity enjoyed before the handover. As emphasized by Law Wing-sang, a renowned postcolonial theorist in Hong Kong, these hindrances are the immediate results of the “passive return” in 1997, for the local citizens played no role to determine their own future, hence the failure to establish the “subjectivity” of Hong Kongers and an infinite deferral of the decolonization project.3 Social activists who are motivated by the leftist agenda consciously resume such a suspended task. For example, Chu Hoi-dick, the founder of the Land Justice League and now a legislative councilor, strives to sweep away the infamous “collusion between the government, businesses, rural forces and triads” for “redeeming the decolonization debt”.4

Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, in his 2015 Policy Address, openly accused the 2014 February issue of Undergrad, the official magazine of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, and a book published by Undergrad of “putting forward fallacies”, which ironically boosted up the book sales. The specific issue of Undergrad singled out by Leung featured a cover story entitled “Hong Kong nation determining its own fate”. In the same year, the editors expanded this issue into a book, named Hong Kong Nationalism. These works represent the earliest attempts to theorize a local identity independent from China. The followers, known as the localists,5 interpret the 1997 handover as a “fall” of the Hong Kong nation to a new foreign aggressor, hence colonial rule continues in spite of the changed flag. For the localists, decolonization means first and foremost expelling Chinese intervention to achieve the de facto6 independence of Hong Kong. As long as their fellow democrats still recognize themselves as Chinese and therefore “beg for mercy” from Beijing, so they believe, real autonomy is impossible.


These three narratives of the Hong Kong story are mutually incompatible. Whenever the epic poets meet, they criticize each other from their distinct points of view. In the eyes of the Chinese officials, any non-compliance with the central government is evidence of the “colony-complex” planted by the British conspirators. Meanwhile, for the leftists, nationalism of any side will always proved harmful to the final construction of civil society. The localists simply find it hopeless to ask for democratic reform from a shameless totalitarian regime. A spectre is still haunting Hong Kong – the spectre of colonialism. Will the right to autonomy belonging to this place, as promised in the Hong Kong Basic Law, sooner or later be seen on the horizon?


  1. 1 In a controversial speech delivered on 12 th September 2015, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, described the political structure of the special administrative region as “an executive-led system with the chief executive at the core”, and further asserted that the chief executive is granted “a special legal status that transcends the executive, legislature and judiciary.” “Zhang Xiaoming’s controversial speech on Hong Kong
    governance: The full text”, South China Morning Post (2015, Sep 16): Politics.
    URL= .
  2. Lui, T. L., “終於需要面對未來:香港回歸及其設計上的錯誤”, Reflexion (思想) 19 (2011), “香港:解殖與回歸”: 89-101.
  3. Law, W. S., “香港本土意識的前世今生”, Reflexion (思想) 26 (2014), “香港:本土與左右”:113-152.
  4. Li, Z., “自決派港大論壇辯論:民主vs民族”, Initium Media (2016, Oct 18): Hong Kong,
  5. Strictly speaking, “the localists” encompass a variety of groups which struggle for the
    preservation of local identity and culture, and which do not unconditionally share the idea of a Hong Kong nation. One prominent opponent among the localist leaders is Chin Wan, known as the advocate of a “Chinese Confederation”. But we keep this expression as a more common name for the nationalist followers. Besides, the principle of national self-determination remains the highest common factor of different localist groups.
  6. The de facto independence of Hong Kong does not necessarily imply the foundation of a new sovereign state, in the excuse of which the Chinese officials steadfastly suppress the localist movement. For example, Leung Kai-ping, the former editor-in-chief of Undergrad, understands Hong Kong in the framework of “nations without states”, proposed by the political scientist Montserrat Guibernau, and clearly rejects secession as the only means to national self- determination. (Preface I, Hong Kong Nationalism, 2019, pp. 7-12 ) In fact, there are intense variations inside the localist movement regarding how far Hong Kong should act against China.

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