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Hong Kong protests: why Chinese media reports focus on Britain’s colonial past

Media tour Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building after protesters broke in on July 1. Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA

Over recent weeks, mass protests against proposed changes to extradition law in Hong Kong have escalated into a major crisis. In the latest round of protests on July 14, tens of thousands took the streets.

In the West, the media has reported this as a struggle for basic rights and freedoms. In China, coverage has been limited as the protests are perceived to be negative. But in what restricted reporting that there has been, the perspective is very different from the West, and reflects deep-seated Chinese views about colonial interference in Hong Kong.

On July 3, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, held a rare press conference on Hong Kong’s protests. In reply to a reporter’s question, he remarked that “for some in the UK, Hong Kong is still a colony under the British rule … some politicians live in a colonial fantasy”. The comment resonated strongly in the Chinese media which sees the British response to the protest as the latest episode of post-colonial meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs.

The fact that protesters stormed Hong Kong’s legislature on July 1, the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the UK to China, was crucial to the reaction. The violence on the day, and the British response, were intolerable to China, touching on a history China tries to forget – what’s known as “a century of humiliation” that began in the 1839 Opium War.

For the Chinese media, Hong Kong’s protests are viewed largely through this historical lens of colonialism. For many Chinese people, Hong Kong is associated with the Nanjing Treaty, the first in a series of unequal treaties imposed by Western powers on China which ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1842. The memory of this is ingrained in the Chinese national psyche through pervasive historiography and school textbooks.

In limited Chinese reports on Hong Kong protests, the ambassador’s response to the British government appears widely. Cankao Xiaoxi (Reference News) – China’s largest paper by circulation – ran with the headline: “British politician indulging in bygone colonial fantasy.” This colonial reference framed the current protests in the lens of historical injustice.

Read more: Extremist mobs? How China's propaganda machine tried to control the message in the Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong’s handover: then and now

The emotive language echoes the sentiments of Chinese media coverage back at the handover in 1997, something I’ve studied in my own research. The headline in China’s People Daily stated the handover was a “great event for the Chinese nation that will go down in the annals of history forever; the victory for the universal course of peace and justice”.

If anything is different from 1997, it’s the tone that has become more assertive in 2019. An editorial in the populist Huanqiu Shibao, or Global Times, said that the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had made a “toothless threat against China”, taunting that “nobody believes the UK will send its only aircraft carrier to China’s coast … this is not the 19th century when the Opium War broke out”.

The current reporting contrasts with the more defensive stance 22 years ago when the Chinese media highlighted the Chinese Communist Party’s triumph in closing a chapter of colonialism by recovering Hong Kong’s sovereignty. But back in 1997, the media also sought to assure the world of China’s commitment to the “one country, two systems” model and that Hong Kong’s prosperity and lifestyle would be protected.

The current assertiveness reflects China’s growing confidence, and its ascent in power relative to the UK. In 1997, China’s GDP was only 62% of the UK’s, but in 2018 it is almost five times the size of the UK’s.

Accusation of foreign interference

The Chinese media blames foreign interference for the escalation of Hong Kong’s protests. The Chinese ambassador is reported to “have made strong representations to the British side” and to “have told them to stop interfering”. China is particularly sensitive to links between domestic unrest and foreign organisations, which are seen as a top security threat to its political stability.

Accusations of interference go hand-in-hand with mentions of British hypocrisy. China’s Xinhua News Agency quoted the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman saying “there had been no elections nor right to protest under the British rule”. Media reports highlighted how Hong Kong’s institutions have evolved into an effective style of government through elections of the chief executive and legislative council. This is often contrasted with how Hong Kong governors were appointed in London under British rule.

Despite the diplomatic row, Anglo-Chinese relations are unlikely to suffer significantly. They have weathered stormy relations in the run up to the 1997 handover and survived subsequent difficulties. Enough political will exists on both sides to maintain productive relations.

Perceptions over Hong Kong will remain wildly different in China and the UK for the foreseeable future. The real test, however, is not the perceptions that dictate the daily media coverage, but the wisdom of political leaders to manage real differences in underlying values, assumptions, and institutions.

These differences will only become more apparent. This is because China’s policy choices are increasingly being informed by its long tradition of centralised power and bureaucratic control. Solutions to these differences won’t be found in words of war amplified by the media, but in a deeper understanding of them amid the rise of China as an alternative world power.

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