The Treaty Nanking - Big Deal


The Treaty of Nanking was  signed 170 years ago and, although its anniversary won't be marked by many, its legacy remains highly charged in the post-colonial era. Stuart Heaver reports. This report is taken from Post Magazine¡¦s 26th August 2012 edition.


A brief history of war:

The Treaty of Nanking, signed on board British ship HMS Cornwallis on August 29, 1842, ended the first opium war (1839-1842). The war was fought between the British Empire and Qing dynasty China, in a dispute rooted in trade, diplomacy and drugs.


The hostilities were painfully one-sided; ancient weaponry, poor communications and under-equipped soldiers proved no match for battle-hardened British forces fighting with the best technology of the day. The treaty is regarded by the Chinese as an unequal agreement forced on it by the British, who were determined to open China to free trade. The war was not universally supported in Britain, either.


The treaty contained 13 sections, including the designation of five new treaty ports and the payment of considerable reparations to Britain. It was section three that ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain, although the island had been a de-facto possession of the British since January 1841, when HMS Sulphur landed troops at Possession Point, now a charming park at Hollywood Road. With neither side content with the content of the treaty, increasing friction resulted in the second opium war (1856-1860).



Big Deal


According to Carroll, the legitimacy of the Communist Party is founded on its role as the defender of the Chinese people against foreign imperialist aggression. "The CCP has always seen itself as having ended foreign privilege in China and with it the century of shame.


"With China changing so quickly now, the CCP needs to hold on more than ever to its claim of having ended imperialism; he says, explaining why the treaty and events surrounding it remain such a touchy subject. ¡§It uses the [opium] war to try and foster patriotism.¡¨ Some historians have suggested that the end of colonial Hong Kong threatened the party's legitimacy because it was no longer the vanguard in the struggle against imperialism and oppression. That job is done; now it is reliant on delivering tangible economic prosperity.


So how should patriotic Hongkongers commemorate the treaty in modern, reunified Hong Kong? Should we calmly acknowledge the quirk of history that meant this small corner of China developed a character of its own and celebrate the difference? Or should we solemnly commemorate the bloodshed caused by an imperial aggressor who forced an unequal treaty on the Qing dynasty and started a century and a half of colonial oppression?


¡§I think it's safe to say that Hong Kong people could see the treaty in both ways,¡¨ says Carroll. The Treaty of Nanking (or at least a copy if it, displayed in a glass cabinet - the original is in the National Archives Office in London) is presented in both ways at the Museum of History, in Thim Sha Tsui. The curators have steered a path through any political controversy with skill and diplomacy. The museum explains that the treaty itself contains 13 articles in all but it is section three that declares ¡§the island of Hong Kong to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannic Majesty, her Heirs and Successors.¡¨


Perhaps in the pursuit of balance, the cabinet containing the treaty is sandwiched between a memorial stone column dedicated to Lord Napier, Britain's first superintendent of trade in China, and an imposing statue of Commissioner Lin Zexu. Lin was the incorruptible official who implemented a ban on the illegal opium trade and is now revered as a hero of the conflict and China's (and possibly the world's) first drugs tsar. ¡§The main point, I suppose, is that because Hong Kong is now part of the PRC, the museum must come up with a history that works for Hong Kong and the PRC. It's not an easy thing to do,¡¨ says Carroll.


The museum refers to the Treaty of Nanking as a ¡¥watershed¡¦ and that's about as far as it is prepared to venture in terms of the legacy. There is no examination of the trade in illegal narcotics that funded the new colony, the racial discrimination in early colonial Hong Kong, the lack of Chinese representation or the social costs of opium addiction.


¡§If you say bad things about the British or colonial government then it becomes easy to say bad things about SAR and PRC governments. It's much easier for them just not to be critical at all," says Carroll.


A short ferry trip north up the Pearl River to Humen, in Guangdong province, takes you to the impressive Sea Battle Museum, built in the 1990s. The contrast in historica1 style with our Museum of History could not be starker. Here there is clear evidence of the party using the opium war to foster patriotic fervour. According to the official guidebook, the museum ¡§combines commemoration, education and recreation into one, is an important part of the base of Humen Fortress patriotism education [sic]¡¨


On entering the building, which rises like a space-age cathedral in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, the preface - written in Chinese and English - reads: ¡§The British colonialists directed their aggressive target to China, attempting to open the door of China by contemptible means of armed invasion and opium smuggling ¡K The conspiracy of the British bourgeoisie was smashed by Chinese success in banning opium.¡¨


And there are several references to Hong Kong, including a special exhibit dedicated to the reunification

titled: ¡§The handing back of Hong Kong avenges the 100 year insult at China.¡¨ In the Anti-British fighting of the Chinese people¡¨ section of the museum, there is a 1ife-size Madame Tussauds-style reconstruction of the Battle of Humen featuring a Chinese soldier in a blood-stained singlet kneeling on a prostrate British invader, throttling him with his left hand while his right is raised, about to land a violent blow for national pride.


The museum seems popular and on this visit there is a squad of smart People's Liberation Army recruits energetically marching up and down the promenade outside the exhibition halls with a huge red national flag being waved before them. As the guidebook makes clear, this is not just history, this is patriotism (or patriotic) education - and taking a dim view of the British role in the opium wars is an important component of it.


In Julia Lovell's highly acclaimed book Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, she argues that the party invented patriotic education in the crisis following 1989's Tiananmen Square crackdown to bring young people into line. Quite miraculously, patriotic education embraced the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the opium war, in 1839, to convince the shocked population that the party was still the country's saviour from evil imperialist plots and claim that it was the West that had organised the ill-fated student demonstrations that summer.


¡§The opium wars birthday extravaganza was the start of one of the Communist party's most successful postMao ideological campaigns: patriotic education,¡¨ writes Lovell. In 1994, the People's Daily described patriotic education as a crusade designed ¡§to boost the nation's spirit, enhance its cohesion, foster its self-esteem and sense of pride.¡¨


This education includes talking up the achievements of Chinese, stirring films, feel-good sing-songs, compiling lists of heroes and, of course, endless references to the century of humiliation inflicted by foreign imperialism.


So, is the national education proposed for Hong Kong - curriculums are set to become compulsory at primary level in 2015 and in secondary schools a year later ¡V an amended version of the system that has proved so successful for Beijing on the mainland? The question returns us to baking hot Victoria Park.


¡§There is not a huge difference between the two,¡¨ says Tang, as she and her friends shuffle forward with the crowd, edging towards the government offices in Admiralty, ¡§although I have not yet seen any anti-Western content in the national education curriculum,¡¨ she admits.


¡§People in the United States are not taught to love the Democratic Party and children in England are not taught to love the queen," says Tang. ¡§And they are certainly not assessed on it.¡¨


Just a short distance from Tang, a young man is waving a lion and dragon flag. The symbol has been adopted by the Hong Kong City-State Autonomy Movement, which is out in force. ¡§We don't want British rule again but we want to return to those glorious days,¡¨ says Mason Ma Yi, a mathematics teacher in a local government school, of the group's choice of flag.


So will his group be commemorating the Treaty of Nanking? ¡§I didn't know about the anniversary,¡¨ he says, ¡§But I do know Hong Kong was founded by the British and not by China.¡¨


What is his objection to a little Chinese culture and history being incorporated in the school curriculum now that the British are long gone?


¡§The Cultural Revolution killed most of the culture in China. Only in Hong Kong and in Taiwan can you still see Chinese culture,¡¨ says Ma. ¡§I don't need a lecture from the Communist Party in how to be Chinese. I am Chinese,¡¨ he adds defiantly.


The Education Bureau web site offers some fascinating teaching resources to assist staff grappling with the demands of the national education initiative. These include, ¡§Web resources of Chinese folk songs,¡¨ ¡§Military summer camp for Hong Kong youth,¡¨ ¡§National flag raising in school¡¨ and ¡§understanding of the national anthem¡¨ and, of course, ¡§Celebration of reunification and an understanding of the national situation in China¡¨.


It is hard not to recall the passage from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that states ¡§he who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past.¡¨


The treaty as represented by the lion and the dragon and adopted by Ma and his colleagues now symbolises the battle for control of the past and perhaps also signifies the identity crisis suffered by young people in reunified Hong Kong.


¡§That's the problem we have. We don't really have an identity but our love for Hong Kong can be reflected in our protests,¡¨ says Tang, as the huge crowd engages in enthusiastic chanting.


The youngest member of the Autonomy Movement at the national education protest is l3-year-old schoolboy Conn Lee. He is proudly waving his flag and his glasses mist over with the effort in such intense heat ¡§I want to be a Hongkonger before I am Chinese,¡¨ he says.


So while the Treaty of Nanking is at the centre of the patriotic education campaign in the post-Tiananmen mainland, it has become a symbol of opposition to what objectors see as the cheap hybrid version of patriotic education about to be introduced in Hong Kong. Perhaps the treaty's lasting legacy is that it leaves many people of Hong Kong with an identity crisis they are struggling to resolve and a sense of pride in their distinctiveness, which they fear isn't being respected by Beijing.


Either way, with those blue colonial-style flags being waved energetically by demonstrators at mass rallies, the treaty appears to be leaping out of the margins of the history books and onto the front pages of news media.


Maybe Professor Carroll should have the last word on how best to commemorate a historical event now weighed down with so much political and emotional baggage that it dominates the relationship between Hong Kong and the rest of China. ¡§Do we need to commemorate it at all?¡¨ he asks. ¡§It's maybe not the answer you might expect from a historian but I guess the real question is how we decide what to commemorate, and why?¡¨


In a Hong Kong where many young people are struggling to define their post-colonial identity, where Beijing is trying to redefine its authority and where the Education Bureau seems determined to introduce a controversial programme of national education, those might be the most important questions of all.