The Hong Kong government is rewriting the city’s history, one phrase at a time.
How the Hong Kong government is trying to rewrite the city’s history
Over decades, Hong Kong officials and citizens alike have used the word “handover” to describe the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
But the city’s official Protocol Division, which helps to host foreign dignitaries, has erased any mention of a “handover of sovereignty” from its website, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday.
That was just the latest in a series of phrases in the city’s official lexicon that have come under scrutiny, at a time when the Chinese government is tightening its control of information over everything from news to its version of the past.
Hong Kong’s no. 2 official, Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung, denied that the government was rewriting history.
In a letter to the newspaper on Wednesday, he defended the change, saying that the term “handover” was “purely a convenient term coined in the run-up to 1997.”
A pro-democracy lawmaker, Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu of Hong Kong’s Civic Party, called the timing of the amendment “highly suspicious” and said the office was “disrespecting Hong Kong’s history.”
The changes appeared to be a response to a 2015 memo issued by the department overseeing the Protocol Division, on “Correct Use of Terminology.”
The document was aimed at ensuring what the government said was the correct use of words in both verbal and written correspondence.
The note didn’t ban the use of the word “handover,” but it suggested that officials describe the 1997 event using “return to China/the Motherland” or “resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong.”
The Protocol Division acknowledged the recent changes to its website to the Post, saying that it was part of an update to make it more “user-friendly.”
Ministry of Truth
The removal followed a recent controversy over the authorities’ move to review the use of words in government-approved textbooks.
In April, the Education Bureau’s external textbook review group said describing China as “taking back” Hong Kong in 1997 was problematic.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam defended the review, saying that “China has never handed Hong Kong’s sovereignty to others.”
The official scrutiny over words has touched a nerve in a city where many people have distanced themselves from a Chinese identity and embraced their local identity and unique history.
Set in stone
The recent snub to the saying that China “took back” Hong Kong also contradicted what Chinese and Hong Kong leaders, including two of her predecessors, said during their time in office.
For instance, Hu Jintao, the then Chinese vice-president, used the phrase “taking back Hong Kong” in a Chinese-language speech in 1999.
Hu was officiating the unveiling ceremony of a monument in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district called The Reunification Monument, commemorating the handover.
The terms “taking back” in Chinese and “recover” in English translation are engraved on the monument’s granite pedestal.