Colonialism is the opposite of democracy

On July 4th, we celebrated America’s 241st Independence Day from Britain and the tyranny of King George III. A few days before that, the people of Hong Kong and China celebrated their break from British colonialism: July 1, 2017 marked 20 years since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 after 156 years of British colonization and rule. In the weeks leading up to July 1, 1997, several commentators stubbornly insisted on wrongly referring to Hong Kong’s return to China as a “handover” or even a “takeover.” Sadly, some commentators did the same in 2017. These commentators would do well to remember the factual history of the British forceful seizure and colonization of Hong Kong, which they did in order to become the world’s largest drug dealer, and the many atrocities Britain committed against the Chinese people in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the early-1800’s, the British desperately wanted to sell opium in China because (1) they wanted the largest market in the world, and (2) they desperately wanted to reverse their huge trade deficit in silver with China. Very high British demand for Chinese silk, tea, and other luxuries meant that Britain had a net outflow of silver into China. The British discovered that they could no longer compete in cotton; they were losing to cotton produced in Egypt and the American South. Accordingly, the British East India Company switched their cotton-growing regions of India to opium. At the time, the Qing Dynasty strictly regulated opium, as countries still do today. Eventually the Qing Emperor completely outlawed opium in China, in the face of heavy pressure from the East India Company not to do so.

In response, the British started two wars, the first from 1839-1842, the second from 1856-1860. Queen Victoria’s government essentially became the world’s largest drug dealer, shipping more than five million pounds of opium into China through Hong Kong each year. As if killing innocent people in order to openly sell opium wasn’t bad enough, the British placed opium into what were supposed to be plain tobacco products, so that thousands of unsuspecting people became opium addicts. They also looted and burned several Chinese palaces.

Besides colonizing Hong Kong, the British also created sizeable foreign legations in sections of Beijing and Shanghai, around which they built walls. These legations were exempt from Chinese law, much like embassies and consulates are today. As a rough modern-day analogy, it would be as if the British colonized Norfolk, Virginia in order to ship in and distribute opium, looted and burned Camp David and the Smithsonian, and forced the United States to cede significant parts of New York City and Washington, D.C.

Also as a result of the Opium Wars, the British forced the Chinese to legalize the trade of indentured servants, known as “coolies.” In fact, the British were the first to engage in large-scale coolie trading. Because the British government abolished slave trading in 1807, they wanted these coolies, which they treated like slaves, for labor-intensive industry sites such as sugar plantations, guano pits, silver mines, and railways throughout their colonies. Many coolies were kidnapped and sold into the trade, and the British kept them in the same detention centers as they had kept their African slaves.

In the 20th century, the British continued to deny Chinese their equal rights as well as their human rights. Chinese subjects of the Crown did not have the same rights as those who were ethnic Anglo-Saxon. Many Chinese still remember when the British openly and systematically discriminated against them, even those who were born and raised in Hong Kong. I personally still remember seeing “No Chinese Allowed” signs in Hong Kong during the 1980s’s. In the years leading up to 1997, the British forbade Hong Kongers of Chinese descent to emigrate to England, even though, as “colonials,” they were already subject to British rule. This was reminiscent of previous British “Yellow Peril” hysteria. That is why so many people from Hong Kong ended up in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.: all former British colonies. This is the same Britain that freely allowed immigration from predominantly Islamic countries. It should be noted that in 2017 alone the British have already experienced several terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. No Hong Kong person ever has committed a mass terrorist attack in Britain.

It is sadly ironic that the British criticize the Chinese government for lacking “democracy” in Hong Kong, when, by definition, the British colonizing Hong Kong was the most anti-democratic act of all. The Hong Kong people never could elect their own governor; the Crown selected him – and it always was a him – with the exception of the Japanese occupation during World War II. In fact, in the post-World War II era Britain gave up its other colonies, but kept a tight grip on Hong Kong, continuing to deny democracy. Chris Patten, who served as Hong Kong’s last British governor from 1992 – 1997, is a particularly vocal critic of China with respect to Hong Kong. But the British government chose him as governor only because he lost his Parliament seat. In 1994 – 1995 he abruptly and single-handedly (as colonial lords often do) changed the electoral parameters of the Hong Kong legislative council, in violation of a Sino-British agreement. There are some who believe that he did so only to insult the incoming Chinese government. Regardless, Britain never considered any sort of democracy for Hong Kong until approximately 2 years before its return to China, and a colonial power bleating about democracy from the colony itself is hypocritical.

Since Hong Kong returned to China, the Hong Kong Chief Executive has been an elected position (the selection committee is 800 members). On July 1, 2017 Carrie Lam became the first woman to lead Hong Kong. Today Hong Kong is a prosperous city, and the world’s third-largest banking center behind New York and London. It continues to grow in both size and population, and is an integral part of the Chinese economy as well as the world’s economy. For sure, the Chinese government will have to carefully manage the “one country, two systems” approach. It will do that because as Hong Kong succeeds, so does China.

Dr. Shu is chair of the bipartisan Asian-American Voters Coalition and Minority Chair of the PA Lycoming County Republican Committee.