In Post-Britain Hong Kong, History Gets a Beijing Spin


The Hong Kong government reacts to growing street protests by deploying riot police throughout the enclave and banning assemblies.

When workers and students press on with demands for political reform by occupying a department store, armed security forces surround the building and open fire.

Although the scene sounds like a nightmare description of a future clash between Hong Kong's democrats and China's communists, it actually occurred 30 years ago, when the British governor clamped down on protests against colonial rule.

The event is one of scores that are likely to be included in Hong Kong's history books following the end of British rule here last week.

Even before China's July 1 takeover of Hong Kong, Beijing seemed set to prove the maxim that history is written by the winners.

"Beijing has already set up a committee to review Hong Kong's textbooks," says a Chinese scholar with high-level government contacts. "One of the first issues the history committee is focusing on is accounts of the Chinese Army's [1989] march on Tiananmen Square."

That could hint at a new trend. Along with filling in the blanks on the worst excesses of British rule here, reporters, scholars, and filmmakers are coming under increased pressure to erase negative accounts of China's Communist leaders.

"There has always been some degree of censorship in Hong Kong," says a local journalist who asked not to be identified. "In the past, there were taboos on reports about the British governors and tycoons who ran Hong Kong.... But these are being replaced by unspoken restrictions surrounding the Chinese leaders and Hong Kong businessmen who have taken over."

While a wave of self-censorship toward Chinese politics is washing across some Hong Kong newspapers, others are taking advantage of the changing of the guard to write freely about Britain's mixed legacy.

In the last months, the Express Daily has been releasing long-suppressed details of the violent crackdown on dissent that shook Hong Kong in 1967.

The series, dedicated to clarifying the former colony's past, has outlined in photographs and print the last stand made by student and workers who marched in protest against British imperialism here a generation ago.

Hong Kong police and heavily armed troops cornered the demonstrators in the Hua Feng store on Hong Kong Island, says local journalist Mai Weiming.

When the activists refused to surrender, security forces on the ground and in helicopters hovering above the store fired on the building, killing at least 50 activists.

"At that time, there were no limits on the power of the police, and ordinary people could be crushed like insects without any recourse to justice," says the journalist.

Hong Kong's all-powerful governor closed down several newspapers that dared to report the 1967 crackdown, and their publishers were imprisoned along with scores of demonstrators.

Some reporters and scholars here are now wondering if that incident from the past could be the prologue to Hong Kong's future under Chinese rule.

Consider media treatment of Tiananmen Square. In the West, and in British-ruled Hong Kong, the assault on Tiananmen is often referred to as the massacre of peaceful student protesters who called for moderate reforms in the party's rule.

Within China, the incident is portrayed as the military suppression of a "counter-revolutionary rebellion" by armed thugs who aimed to topple the Communist Party.

The handful of Chinese journalists who in 1989 tried to provide realistic accounts of "Operation Tiananmen" were jailed, and the chilling effect that lingers in China is now crossing the border into Hong Kong.

"Beijing has been using intimidation and economic pressure rather than outright bans to control newspaper and book publishers," says a Hong Kong reporter surnamed Lee.

"Papers that are too critical of Beijing lose advertising from companies that fear the new rulers," he adds.

The Apple Daily, Hong Kong's bestselling newspaper, is a good case in point. The former owner of the paper, Jimmy Lai, found himself on Beijing's blacklist after criticizing Chinese Premier Li Peng, and several local brokerages have pulled out of deals to list the publishing company under pressure from China.

Similar tactics have persuaded most local theaters not to show "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," a documentary on the rise and fall of pro-democracy protesters.

Yet some of Hong Kong's residents say they are determined to resist censorship.

Lau Sanching, who has already spent several years in a Chinese jail for "colluding with antisocialist forces" on the mainland, vows to keep the channels of information open in Hong Kong.

Mr. Lau responded to a ban on a movie criticizing Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong by showing the film on the streets of Hong Kong. But it is unclear if the territory will tolerate such civil disobedience.

Some activists say they will seek new ways to spread their ideas. "Beijing may try to control our public speech, but it cannot totally silence the truth," says Lau. "If we lose our access to the press, there is always the Internet," he says, adding that he intends to open a democracy-oriented home page on the World Wide Web.

A Rewrite of History, Chinese Style

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