Falsification of colonial history

Updated: 2012-10-16 06:47

By Chan Wai-keung (HK Edition)

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It's peculiar that some Hong Kong youngsters recently unfurled British colonial flags during demonstrations against the HKSAR government and the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government here. Are these young people who scarcely experienced British rule really feeling nostalgic of the colonial period? Do they really have any historical knowledge of colonial rule? I don't think so. Their so-called nostalgia for British rule is probably based on only some fictitious colonial myths.

During World War II, the notorious Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, once noted that to conquer a nation, one must first disarm its citizens by re-inventing their collective memory of the past. In the early 1940s, echoing the motto of Goebbels, the Japanese-supported government led by Wang Jingwei in Nanjing sought to fabricate a racial bond between the Chinese and Japanese in history, arguing that both the races had shared a common ancestor in ancient Mongolia. Modern historians have condemned Wang as a traitor who ruthlessly imposed unauthentic memory of the racial origin on school children to merely serve his own political goals.

Shying away from modern Chinese history, British colonial education woefully made most Hong Kong people suffer from a national amnesia. Nor do the young people who mostly grew up after the 1997 handover have a first-hand and accurate knowledge of colonial history.

It's a disgrace that some anti-Chinese bloggers and commentators have exploited this collective amnesia in pursuit of their de-sinofication. Following in Wang Jingwei's footsteps, they recently embarked on distorting and even cooking up Hong Kong colonial history to re-invent a bond with such outsiders as the British.

Over the past few years, there have been prevalent misconceptions of the motivation of a range of colonial reforms of the 1970s and 1980s in social media. To ridicule the SAR administration for its inertia, some bloggers tended to exaggerate Governor Murray MacLehose's compassion in initiating a series of plans to tackle poverty. For example, one blogger contended: "Unlike Chief Executive Donald Tsang and CY Leung, MacLehose, without the companion of other officials and bodyguards, very often went to the squatter areas in disguise to feel the pulse of the disadvantaged. Having great sympathy for these poverty-stricken residents, he finally decided to formulate a public housing scheme to improve their accommodation." The historical narrative of this kind has, in fact, been twisted.

In debunking the myth of MacLehose, political scientist, Li Pang-kwong, recently unearthed a historical document at the British Foreign Office to prove that MacLehose had unveiled the public housing plan definitely not out of compassion. Rather, it is the British imperialist ambition and avarice which compelled the colonial government to undertake a series of reforms. As Li pointed out, in a bid to keep Hong Kong as its colony for good, the colonial government deemed its social and economic development as a bargaining chip amidst its sovereignty negotiations with Beijing. It's MacLehose's wishful thinking that so long as Hong Kong's development of different aspects overtook the Chinese mainland, the Beijing government would be overwhelmed and become feeble in the negotiations. Of course, history has proven him wrong.

Another revealing example of fabrication of colonial memory is the recent prevailing narrative of Governor Chris Patten's handling of disasters. To lambaste CY Leung and deputy head of the Liaison Office, Li Gang, for political grandstanding at the scene of recent ferry disaster, some bloggers have recalled on the Web: "Patten was a sensible and thoughtful governor, never putting his political point-scoring before the well-being of disaster victims. For instance, in the midst of the Garley Building fire in 1996, this English gentleman, unlike Leung and Li, refused to rush to the fire-plagued area to give a press conference. Asked by the media to give reasons for refusing to pay an immediate visit to the scene of the disaster, Patten replied with remarkable grace and dignity that his presence there might have caused an inconvenience to firefighters. Leung and Li should therefore learn from this colonial governor's wisdom". Actually, this recollection is a total fabrication. A historical documentary has demonstrated the undisputed fact that, shortly after the tragedy, Patten immediately rushed to the scene to give a press conference.

Unfortunately, the leading columnist for the anti-Beijing newspaper Apply Daily, Li Yi, has appropriated this historical fabrication in his editorial to denounce Li Gang's presence at the hospital during the ferry disaster as superfluous and noisome. His use of fabricated historical evidence is indeed drawing criticism from some current affairs commentators and readers, thus calling the credibility of Apply Daily into question as well. Nonetheless, up to now, neither Li Yi nor Apply Daily has offered an apology to the reader.

It is naive and quixotic for the anti-Beijing radicals to believe that, by sanctifying colonial rule will they gradually sever Hong Kong's ties with China. Like Wang Jingwei, those who brainwash our youngsters with invented memory are on the wrong side of history. Those who forget traitors' history will doom to repeat it.

The author is a lecturer at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a Yau Tsim Mong District Councillor.

(HK Edition 10/16/2012 page3)