By September 29, peaceful protesters had been clogging Hong Kong’s downtown for less than a day, but to the Chinese Communist Party this already smacked of ingratitude. Here’s an excerpt from an editorial that ran that day in the People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, entitled “No one cares more about Hong Kong’s future destiny than the entire Chinese people”:
Since 1842, when Hong Kong was reduced to being a British colony, our fellow citizens of Hong Kong were but second- or third-class citizens suffering unequal treatment. During the 1950s, anti-colonial liberation movements roiled its colonies and Britain bought off its people’s will, and yet Hong Kong’s political reform plan was unfairly dismissed as “excessively dangerous.” In 150 years, the country that now poses as an exemplar of democracy gave our Hong Kong compatriots not one single day of it. Only in the 15 years before the 1997 handover did the British colonial government reveal their “secret” longing to put Hong Kong on the road to democracy ... creating a not inconsiderable gulf between the mainland and Hong Kong. Yet it was only after the handover—and thanks to none other than the Chinese central government’s diligence—that Hong Kong could begin to hope that within just two decades it would get to elect its chief executive through universal suffrage. Who has the real democracy, and who has the fake democracy—compare the two and judge.
Of course, this argument doesn’t change the fact that the Chinese government’s version of “universal suffrage” requires that Hong Kong voters pick from candidates Beijing has essentially selected for them, reneging on past promises.
That aside, the Communist Party’s new pet argument seems to make some sense—or at least, it would have until recently. In the last couple years, however, the British government has declassified a cache of colonial records that tell a very different story.
Take for instance this document, which describes what British Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Cantlie relayed to British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan about his conversation with Premier Zhou Enlai in early 1958:
In it, Zhou says Beijing would regard allowing Hong Kong’s people to govern themselves as a “very unfriendly act,” says Cantlie. Not long thereafter, in 1960, Liao Chengzhi, China’s director of “overseas Chinese affairs,” told Hong Kong union representatives that China’s leaders would “not hesitate to take positive action to have Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories liberated” if the Brits allowed self-governance:
These documents—which, perhaps unbeknownst to the People’s Daily, Hong Kong journalists have been busily mining—show that not only were the Brits mulling granting Hong Kong self-governance in the 1950s, it was the Chinese government under Mao Zedong who quashed these plans, threatening invasion. And the very reason Mao didn’t seize Hong Kong in the first place was so that the People’s Republic could enjoy the economic fruits of Britain’s colonial governance.