Colonialism is a sensitive and highly challenging topic in Western universities. The orthodox approach to teaching colonialism is through an anti-colonial framework that emphasizes the harms that the colonizers have done to the colonized. An overly simplistic anti-colonial rhetoric, however, presents barriers to pursuing knowledge. Some historical evidence indicates that despite the abundant ills of colonialism, at least some countries may have benefited from the aftereffects of colonial governances. For instance, British colonization of sparsely populated and underdeveloped regions improved their economies and standard of living. After Singapore became independent, the rulers seized the advantages left to them by the British empire and used them for the benefit of wider society. In many African nations, Christian missions played a recognized role in improving their educational systems.

Indeed, we must acknowledge the injustices of colonialism and condemn its evils, both past and present. At the same time, recognizing and acknowledging the positive aftereffects on some colonized societies does not equate to condoning colonialism or any form of oppression. Rather, it helps sort out priorities and advance democratic governance and the rule of law in these once-colonized societies. In addition, acknowledging the positive aftereffects has the added benefit of helping students think through colonial realities with more nuance and historical specificity than dismissing anything that sniffs of colonialism out of hand.

In recent years, there has been a sweeping movement to abolish symbols of colonialism in American institutions, like the statues of Charles Linn and Christopher Columbus. These efforts rarely take a nuanced approach to the study of these historical figures or colonialism. Given the harms of colonialism, it is understandable that many academics see decolonization of former colonies as the best way to, as some academics say, “set things right.” However, it is also necessary to avoid a simplistic narrative, which could lead to ineffectual strategies. Thus, a useful pedagogical approach is to introduce a nuanced discussion on different forms of colonial governance. One such example is to name countries or places that came into existence and/or became economically prosperous, culturally vibrant, and politically stable due to their colonial systems and other circumstantial factors. Through probing, open-ended questions, one can ask students to ponder whether decolonizing these post-colonial societies would indeed be desirable, and how far decolonization could go without hurting their residents and societies in general.

The Hong Kong Example 

When co-teaching a course offered by a German university, I introduced the Hong Kong story as a case study to examine the complexity of colonialism’s long-term impacts. Before analyzing Hong Kong, I first addressed numerous examples showing the tremendous harms of colonialism, such as the exploitation and displacement of indigenous communities

Teaching colonialism using the Hong Kong example can be especially challenging during this pandemic. Many erroneously equate being anti-China (the Chinese Communist Party to be more exact) with being anti-Asian. Amid reports of racial violence targeting East Asians, the Chinese government and apologists for its Communist Party have seemingly exploited any unfortunate rise in anti-Asian racism to suppress legitimate criticism of the Chinese government and push their pro-China agenda. Merely pointing out the reality that China has destroyed what hardworking and persevering Hong Kong people accomplished under British governance may be viewed unfavorably as adding fuel to the fire of racism.

Hence, instructors seeking to underscore any benefits to colonialism must deploy extreme tact. In my class, I presented these important facts about Hong Kong. Care was taken to describe the dark days of its early colonial history, with details such as discrimination against the Chinese ethnic group and their poor housing conditions. This was followed by a discussion of the substantial improvements in colonial governance after WWII, including citizens gaining political freedoms and freedom of speech, despite not having universal suffrage. While the city became a haven for Vietnamese refugees fleeing from political persecution in their homeland, it produced no political refugees of its own. It became a world-class financial center due to the hard work of the Hong Kong people who thrived under the British system. China’s campaign to decolonize Hong Kong by imposing its own system of governance ended up toppling the city’s long-standing rule of law tradition and deprived Hong Kongers of basic liberties. Indeed, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, starting in 2019, were driven by the protesters’ demand that China comply with the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984) and respect Hong Kong’s way of life and system of governance that it inherited from the British 50 years ago. Instead, when confronted with its breach of agreement, China officially declared it a “historical document” that carries no meaning. Come 2019, Hong Kong protesters waved the colonial flag and even the Union Jack, both to express their longing for a bygone golden era and to appeal to the Western democracies, which they hoped could help liberate them from the grip of the oppressive government in Beijing and its puppet local government, which, since the handover in 1997, have led to rampant corruption in the city, destroyed its rule of law, and produced an increasing number of its own refugees.

Then, I posed probing questions to engage my students:      

In many places around the world, people decried the evils of colonialism and actively tore down monuments. Certainly, colonialism is unjust and Hong Kong protesters by no means approve of oppression. Yet how might one account for the lack of a decolonizing movement initiated by Hong Kongers? Is it understandable for them to put aside the less glamorous years of its early colonial history, yearn for the “good old days” of the “Pearl of the Orient,” and seek help from Western nations when they were oppressed by the Chinese government? What has been at stake since Hong Kong was handed over to China?

I took great care not to overemphasize China’s harmful policies in Hong Kong;   instead, I focused on a few of the puppet government’s actions over the past decade. One example is the National Education Program it tried to implement in its primary and secondary schools in 2012. The program aimed to inculcate loyalty among Hong Kong’s young people to China by portraying the Communist Party as an “advanced, selfless, and united ruling group,” while denouncing Democratic and Republican parties of the United States as a “fierce inter-party rivalry [that] makes the people suffer.” It also omitted many historical events that reflect poorly on the Communist Party, such as the Tiananmen Square incident. Although this program was shelved, similar programs and measures are now in place. Another example is the draconian National Security Law that came into effect on July 1, 2020, which theoretically allows the government the power to prosecute anyone criticizing China — including non-Chinese citizens living outside China. This law has led to mass arrests and exodus out of the city.      

I then posed another set of questions:      

To what extent does teaching students about historical events matter and what are the foreseeable effects of the education program? Why is free speech important and how can it reconcile with national security? Why did the Hong Kong people, many of whom love Cantonese, take pride in their cultural hub that blends Chinese with Western, and do not detest Chinese culture per se, protest against the Chinese government?

It has been my experience and observation that some professors tend to analyze current events through a simplistic racial and anti-colonialist framework and justify China’s takeover of Hong Kong on racial grounds. Some even attribute Hong Kong’s crisis to the aftereffects (“evils”) of British colonialism and believe that Hong Kong should undergo decolonization. Given the harms that colonialism has inflicted on many colonized regions, it is understandable that some believe decolonization would be beneficial and feasible to all colonies. Besides, protests do hurt the economy and, to a lesser extent, may threaten the sovereignty of the nation. Those who respect the sovereignty of China may hold that the Western model should not be applied to China and that it must be given time to democratize.

Certainly, the British did not colonize Hong Kong out of good intentions. Even the golden age of British Hong Kong, where people enjoyed peace, liberty, and dignity, should not detract from the exploitative nature of colonialism. However, the success of Hong Kong can fairly be attributed in part to the British system, while its recent upheavals indicate that China’s takeover of Hong Kong is a much worse kind of colonization. Failing to account for the role of the British system in Hong Kong’s success clouds students’ learning about colonialism and different forms of colonial governance.

Possible Reactions and Dialogues

Through the case study and questions, I sought to broaden the perspectives of students and help them resist thinking and viewing colonization only through a racial lens and examine alternative solutions besides simple decolonization — eradicating everything that is British.

My German students responded to this case study with enthusiasm. The fact that their nation has experienced two different dictatorships might have increased their awareness about the evils of totalitarianism, regardless of what form it might take. One student responded that she could identify with Hong Kongers’ nostalgia for British governance, which was due to Hong Kongers’ appreciation of the fundamental freedoms that it offered — freedoms that no longer exist. Almost all students agreed that Hong Kong should become an independent city-state so that its people can determine what form of governance is the best for them — adopting the positive elements of British governance where necessary would not be a form of recolonization, but an assertion and exercise of autonomy. One student eagerly asked what Western governments and international organizations can and should do for Hong Kong to achieve this status.

Students from different backgrounds might react to this case study differently. They might argue that Hong Kongers are ethnic Chinese and therefore should reconcile with China. They may argue fervently that patriotism is a virtue, while betraying one’s “roots’” is a vice. Regardless of their personal beliefs, instructors must not dismiss or ridicule beliefs as such. Instead, they should engage the students further with more open-ended questions: What defines people — their ethnicity or their conduct? Is there a duty to be patriotic if one’s love for “motherland” is not requited? What are “roots,” and how many people who live in countries that were part of the former Roman Empire still consider themselves “Romans”?

Ultimately, whether this case study and method will work well in the American classroom will depend in part on how keen the professors are on promoting thoughtful discussions on this topic. If professors are willing to give equal weight to the “lived experiences” of all people, this timely case study will likely provoke spirited discussions and sharpen the critical skills of their students.