An anti-government protester carries a Hong Kong colonial flag blocking the main road in downtown, at Central on New Year's Day. Pic: AP.

British Council is forced to pull ad campaign amid political sensitivities, writes Patrick Boehler

Fifteen years into Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, the Union Jack returns to be a politically loaded symbol in the quest for identity as two different visions of the future of Hong Kong and Greater China square off in the autonomous city. Surprisingly, the long-retired colonial flag has been adopted as a symbol for those who advocate a distinct cultural and political identity for Asia’s leading financial hub.

This week, the British Council’s Hong Kong branch decided to remove advertising posters for an education exhibition that contained the Union Jack from a Hong Kong subway station. Posters with the flag and the slogan “This is GREAT Britain” at the centrally located Admiralty Station had sparked a debate online, the South China Morning Post reported.

“Given some of the wording has been subject to misinterpretation in Hong Kong, it was decided to remove those posters a few days early,” a spokeswoman told the Post.

A man walks past a sign bearing anti-government flyers during a protest in Hong Kong. Pic: Patrick Boehler.

The British flag and the colonial British Blue Ensign with Hong Kong’s former royal crest have increasingly been re-appearing at anti-government protests, prompting the city’s new Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to point out at a parliamentary questions-and-answers session in November that the territory’s handover was “a matter of fact” and that the flag now “features a bauhinia flower,” the five-leaved orchid tree flower that now serves as Hong Kong’s emblem.

Those looking back nostalgically to the days when Hong Kong was still ruled by Britain were mostly those born in the 1980s and ‘90s, James Sung Lap-kung, a political scientist with City University of Hong Kong told the Post yesterday. Those who lived through earlier days of British rule “might not be so impressed,” he said.

“Unlike other British colonies — ex-colonies — we did not become a new nation,” Chief Executive Leung told TIME Magazine when he assumed office last year. “Therefore there wasn’t a new national identity.“

“We want the freedoms we had under the British,” said Kei, a young professional, when I asked her at an anti-government rally on January 1 attended by some 30,000 people why she was waving a British flag. She said she was not nostalgic about Hong Kong being a colony; the flag was a way of expressing the difference in history and values between Hong Kong and the authoritarian People’s Republic of China.

Standing next to her, wearing a black shirt with a cartoon depiction of Chief Executive Leung, her friend Steven said that he was Chinese, but wanted Hong Kong to be like Singapore, where founding father Lee Kuan Yew shed tears when Malaysia kicked the island state out of its union in 1965, but has been faring better ever since.

In a study released on Thursday, the non-profit research body Ideas Centre asked more than a thousand Hong Kongers born between 1990 and 1999 on how they felt about their identity. While most see economic prosperity linked to the Chinese mainland, most would also rather keep the values they associate with the British legacy in the territory. 41% agreed that the city should strengthen its economic integration with the mainland, only 30% said that a cultural integration should be pursued. 22% were against further economic integration, but 39% opposed further cultural integration.

Strikingly, only 13% said they could imagine living and working on the Chinese mainland on a longer-term basis.

Five years before the city is scheduled to elect its Chief Executive by universal suffrage for the first time, distrust dominates not only young Hong Kongers’ attitude towards Beijing, it lives in a deeper-rooted skepticism that the country’s and the city’s politicians are working for the public good. 55% of those surveyed by Ideas Centre said that political parties did not represent their positions.

Chief Executive Leung at least seems to be aware of the root of the problem. “There is a sense of being disowned, and therefore, there’s a deep sense of distrust between the people and the government,” he told TIME.

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