In Hong Kong, the queen’s mourning has another purpose: to defy China

A crowd of more than 2,500 people of all ages lined up outside the British consulate on Monday, braving sweltering temperatures 33 degrees Celsius (91 Fahrenheit), to leave flowers, framed photos and messages to thank the “bos lady” or “lady in charge” — as it was often known in Cantonese during the colonial years.

For some of them, this was not just mourning for a monarch who ruled the city for 45 years, but a subtle form of protest against criticism of how China clamped down on a once freewheeling and bustling city. Beijing has seen its civil liberties steadily erode since the British handed over sovereignty to Beijing 25 years ago.

Public gatherings have been rare since China enacted a national security law in June 2020 in a bid to quell increasingly violent pro-democracy protests that have rocked the city since 2019. This restriction, along with what critics say are the coronavirus restrictions, have sometimes effectively silenced gatherings or the most obvious forms of public dissent by those committed to common political goals.

But in celebrating the monarchy and its symbols, some in Hong Kong see an opportunity to take a veiled dig at both the Chinese Communist Party, which has made no secret of Hongkongers’ eagerness to forget the era, and the local authorities, who have recently introduced school textbooks. that claim the city was never even a colony to begin with. The books instead refer to the period of British rule as “forced occupation”.

A retiree named Wing, who spoke to CNN outside the consulate on Monday but declined to give his full name, said it was “unbelievable” to be part of a mass gathering again.

“I feel angry that the Hong Kong government does not show proper respect (to the queen). They are afraid that the Chinese government will talk about them, but we were part of the colony,” said Wing, who was born there. the 1960s

Another, Sylvia Lee, said she was saddened to hear of the Queen’s death, saying she was a symbol of stability around the world.

“Nobody lives forever and we knew this day would come someday. He was a respected person, and the colonial-era government made a lot of contributions to the development of Hong Kong, especially in the 70s and 80s,” Lee told CNN, referring to a a time when the city’s appointed governors built public housing and transportation infrastructure.

A symbol of protest and a complicated past

On the surface, the queen’s mourning may not seem confrontational, especially since Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Hong Kong chief executive John Lee (a former policeman who began his career with the Royal Hong Kong Police in 1977) have sent their condolences. “The United Kingdom.

But the display of love is also a reminder of the city’s pro-democracy protests, with demonstrators carrying the colonial flag as a sign of resistance to China’s one-party rule.

In one high-profile incident, protesters entered the city’s legislative chamber and defaced graffiti calling for universal suffrage, while hanging a colonial flag over the council president’s seat.

Britain’s ties to Hong Kong date back to the 19th century. They date back to the 19th century, when the empire’s attempt to force opium on China — both in trade and through the illegal drug addiction of its population — led to two wars that forced China to cede land to the British. .

Britain ruled Hong Kong for 156 years until it was returned to China in 1997 as part of a long-standing agreement, but signs of British influence remain in the city’s English street names and use of the common law system.

Queen Elizabeth herself visited Hong Kong twice while it was a British territory, while her son, the current King Charles III, attended the handover ceremony.

However, the city’s colonial past was far from peaceful, nor without criticism. Riots erupted in the 1960s, when what began as protests against rising ferry fares and calls for better labor rights turned into a series of strikes and bombings that at times brought the city to a standstill.
More than 2,500 people lined up to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II outside the British consulate in Hong Kong on September 12, 2022.

In response to the protests, the British colonial government introduced a series of welfare reforms, including public housing programs and compulsory free education.

But critics from the colonial era have pointed out that even under British rule, Hong Kongers did not have universal suffrage. And many believe London neglected its duty by failing to grant Hong Kong citizenship at the time of the handover, instead offering a limited passport that gave most of them no right to live and work in Britain. Since the introduction of the national security law, Britain has created what it calls a pathway to citizenship through a new type of visa.

“It was the (Queen’s) empire that, in 1997, handed us over to China against our will,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a Washington-based activist born in the last years of colonial Hong Kong.

Secret negotiations sealed Hong Kong's future

Ngo said he was too young to remember life under Britain, but said older generations in Hong Kong look back on Queen Elizabeth II’s reign — particularly her 1975 and 1986 visits — with great fondness because “they associate it with a freer, simpler time. happier.”

“The feeling is understandable, considering that the intuitive point of comparison is Hong Kong under China. I respect the lived experience, even if I don’t share something. For me, the wealth and prestige of the monarchy is impossible to free from the violence and expansionism of the empire,” he said.

Ngo said the draconian laws Beijing is now using to prosecute pro-democracy activists — such as colonial-era sedition legislation — were a reminder that there was a darker side to Britain’s heritage.

CNN’s Jan Camenzind Broomby contributed reporting.