Why are Protestors in Hong Kong Waving British and American Flags?

While there is certainly no single, unified intention behind them, there is a breadth and depth of meaning behind the use of these flags that is worth exploring.

by Jaquelin Coulson

Image:  The Standard

Since June 2019 Hong Kong has been swept by protests sparked by a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China. The protests have become a movement of up to nearly two million people with demands beyond just withdrawing the extradition bill. Some of the protesters’ choices of imagery have been controversial. At various demonstrations protesters have been seen waving American and British flags, including the colonial version of the latter, which radical protesters hung prominently inside the Legislative Assembly after storming it on July 1st. While there is certainly no single, unified intention behind them, there is a breadth and depth of meaning behind the use of these flags that is worth exploring.

It may seem counterintuitive that protesters advocating for the protection of Hong Kong’s autonomy and liberties would take up the flag of its former colonial oppressors. But flying the Union Jack does not express a desire to return to the colonial days, even if some Hongkongers do feel a certain nostalgia for that past.

The simplest explanation is that the colonial flag is a Hong Kong flag, a part of over 150 years of its history, and a symbol of its identity as distinct from the rest of China. Yet the fact that the former colonial flag is chosen rather than the modern regional flag of Hong Kong suggests the more subversive message behind its use. The design of the regional flag, with its five stars and red background, draws on Chinese Communist emblems and represents Hong Kong’s tie to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The British colonial flag in contrast represents a time when the central Chinese government was subjugated and embarrassed by that same foreign power. The central and Hong Kong governments have previously urged that protesters not use it to express their discontent, with one Politburo member stating that “the Chinese people will not accept some Hongkongers waving the colonial flag.” Notwithstanding these requests, the law provides Hongkongers the right to use the colonial flag as a freedom of expression, and they have taken full advantage of this to display the flag at anti-government protests for years “as a symbol of everything that makes Hong Kong different to the rest of China,” and as a show of defiance of the CCP. A recent instance of protesters throwing the Chinese national flag into the sea is consistent with these defiant sentiments and the rejection of the Party’s authority.

Finally, the use of both the colonial flag and the Union Jack are for many meant to send a message to Beijing and to London to uphold the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. This agreement, registered as an international treaty at the United Nations, provided that Hong Kong would retain partial autonomy from the mainland government for at least fifty years, until 2047. As such, after the 1997 handover, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China with its own partial constitution, legal system, and select democratic rights such as freedoms of speech and assembly. In this way, Hongkongers have been somewhat insulated from crackdowns on the mainland, where the law is openly subverted to the will of the CCP to carry out executions of human rights lawyers and political dissidents. The proposed extradition bill brought this into acute focus, since it would allow the Hong Kong government to send Hongkongers to the mainland to face the Chinese legal system, and for certain crimes, the death penalty.

By flying the British colonial flag, then, protesters have attracted attention from British citizens and politicians who have in turn put pressure on Beijing to concede to – or at least consider – some of the protesters’ demands. In response, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has spoken with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to emphasize the need to protect the right to peaceful protest and the need for “meaningful political dialogue and a fully independent investigation into recent events.” Furthermore, London’s emphatic support for “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy as provided for in the joint declaration” underscores the implication that by encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy and unique constitutional rights, Beijing defies its treaty with the UK. This gives the UK a strong mandate to exert pressure on Beijing, on the basis of upholding its treaty. The reasons for protesters flying British flags are thus complex and deeply rooted in Hong Kong’s history and culture.

The American flag is less inextricably linked, but provides evocative imagery nonetheless. Because of the founding myth of Americans’ self-liberation from British colonial rule, the ideals upon which the United States was founded, and the American foreign policy tradition of (ostensibly) exporting democracy, American symbols have come to represent the values of freedom and democracy the world over. They were notably invoked in 1989 by Tiananmen Square protesters, who erected a 33-foot tall “Goddess of Democracy” in the image of New York’s Statue of Liberty. A replica of the Goddess stands today in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, where an annual vigil is held for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. As today’s protestors once again take up the torch of democracy and human rights, so do they take up the American flag as a symbol of those values for which they fight.

Yet much like for the British flag, some protesters have an additional, more tangible objective. The Asia Times reported one protester claiming the flag was intended to spur the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a pro-protester bill that was first proposed in 2017. Others have noted the ongoing Sino-American “trade war” as an opportunity for Washington to exert additional pressure on Beijing to consider the protesters’ demands. American citizens, politicians, and President Trump himself have certainly taken notice of the protests. Although at first Trump’s response ranged from neutral to even praising Chinese President Xi Jinping rather than the supporting the protesters, an August 14 tweet from the President implied that a trade deal with the Chinese would be contingent on their “work[ing] humanely with Hong Kong.” A more robust response has come from civil society and even Congresspeople who have called strongly on Washington to stand up for the “American” values of democracy and human rights that Hongkongers have now championed.

An additional interpretation of the flags has come from Beijing. The mainland government has taken the flags as a sign that the UK and US are covertly involved in instigating and fuelling the protests. In consideration of the flags and the British Foreign Minister’s comments to Chief Executive Lam, the Chinese ambassador to the UK has characterized British involvement as a kind of post-colonial meddling in internal affairs. In any case, allegations of interference have been denied by both accused governments and by the protesters themselves. It is uncertain the extent to which the accusations are genuine, rather than intended to support the CCP’s propagandist messaging focused on discrediting the protesters as a small group of violent rioters backed by foreign agents.

At twenty-two years since the handover to China, it seems the people of Hong Kong still lack a flag truly their own that they can wave with pride. But for a region considered the most multicultural and internationally-oriented of all China, perhaps it is fitting that the flags and values of others take such a prominent role in the fight for Hong Kong’s identity and freedom. May the many flags of Hong Kong speak louder than the Party’s words.