Historical nihilism

The Hong Kong government is sneakily rectifying its websites, deleting common and loosely worded references to the July 1, 1997 handover and replacing them with ‘correct’ ones.

This follows a similar episode over school textbooks. Local officials have gone into pre-emptive panic mode in fear that the old wording might anger their Beijing masters. They are acting surreptitiously mainly in the hope that grim Mainland ideological enforcers won’t notice, but inevitably it looks as if they are trying to hide the revisions from the local populace – so another bemusing bureaucratic bicker-fest blunder begins.

The issue of the ‘correct’ wording is mind-numbingly tedious: Beijing has always insisted that 1997 marked the ‘resumption of the exercise of sovereignty’ over Hong Kong, whatever historical, constitutional or linguistic pedants may think. The South China Morning Post story points out that several years back the local protocol style-masters decreed that ‘return to China/the motherland’ was also acceptable for official use. But the slangy ‘handover’ or ‘take back’ are not. (Comrade Priscilla thinks ‘ordinary people’ – guess she means the proletariat – can be forgiven for being inaccurate).

To Hong Kong bureaucrats tweaking copy on websites, this is about mandatory official use of specific clunky or corny phrases to appease Beijing. But why should Beijing care?

This is not about whether people think China (in Qing, republican or PRC form) technically kept or didn’t keep sovereignty (however defined) over Hong Kong (in part or whole) between (all or some of) 1842-1997. It is about how people perceive the whole past.

In the years immediately straddling the handover, Beijing stressed the importance and grandness of reunification. Twenty years later, people in Hong Kong (and the world beyond) still think in terms of pre-1997 and post-1997 – thus dwelling on contrasts in constitutional status or living conditions. The time has come to downplay the ‘before and after’ and leave instead an implied vague continuum stretching back to/from 1949, 1911, the first Qin emperor, or whatever. So eventually the colonial period never, or barely, happened.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in seeking truth from facts, China bans defamation of the Communist Party’s official heroes, Cantonese is not a mother tongue, and Peppa Pig joins Winnie the Pooh as a threat to national security.


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