Though distance-wise Hong Kong and Kashmir may be about 4,000km (2,485 miles) apart, they have in common a history of being scarred by the crimes of British colonialism.
This history and those scars cannot be abstracted when it comes to grasping the nettle of the crises that have engulfed both places now because, without factoring this in, no serious analysis can be undertaken and no salutary lessons will be learned.
Starting with Hong Kong, when senior Conservative Party MP and former British Army officer Tom Tugendhatrecently suggested that the people of Hong Kong should be granted UK citizenship (regardless of whether they want it or not) as a form of protection from Beijing, he provided the world with an insight into the colonial mind of the British establishment.
In making this ludicrous suggestion, amounting to an outrageous imposition of British sovereignty over the city, Mr Tugendhat revealed that to him China should know its rightful place as a lesser power. In this he has been joined by the UK’s former governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes (I promise you, I’m not making this up), who with astonishing arrogance has called for a British commission of inquiry to be established to look into the unrest, with particular emphasis on the actions of the Hong Kong police.
Both Tom Tugendhat and Lore Patten could, to all intents, have been standing on the shoulders of Lord George Macartney, the man who led Britain’s first ever trade delegation to China in 1792 on the orders of King George III.
Macartney and his 700-strong trade delegation were spurned in this, Britain’s first attempt at opening up China to British trade and diplomatic relations. However, as China expert Martin Jacques reveals in his classic work, When China Rules the World, the British diplomat believed that “it was futile for China to resist the British demands because it was ‘in vain to attempt arresting the progress of human knowledge.’”
While Macartney’s first attempt to open up China to the tender mercies of British ‘progress’ was meeting with failure, the British East India Company was having more success, having just begun to export opium from India to the country. When Beijing banned this trade in drugs in 1839, on the basis that it was ravaging its people with addiction, London launched the first of the two Opium Wars it would wage against China in the 19th century, dispatching its navy to the region to bombard the Chinese into submission.
As part of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing at war’s end, China was forced to pay London a large indemnity, cede Hong Kong to British control, and continue to allow the importation of opium. It was an act of foul international brigandage, dressed up in the pomp and ceremony of British exceptionalism. What’s more, it marked the start of China’s ‘century of humiliation’, during which the country was mercilessly exploited, mistreated, and invaded by a clutch of imperialist powers, among them the US, UK, France, and Japan.
British exceptionalism was, by the time of the Treaty of Nanjing, deeply entrenched and in operation across the Indian subcontinent. From 1846 to 1947 Kashmir was ruled as a princely state by the British Raj in India, reducing it to the status of British vassal under a local ruler.
At the time of Britain’s withdrawal from India in 1947, after acceding to and organizing its partition into the Muslim majority state of Pakistan and Hindu dominated India, Labour’s Clement Attlee was prime minister. In words that do much to discredit his legacy, he served up a speech in the House of Commons which included the following:
“Looking back today over the years, we may well be proud of the work which our fellow citizens have done in India. There have, of course, been mistakes, there have been failures, but we can assert that our rule in India will stand comparison with that of any other nation which has been charged with the ruling of a people so different from themselves.”
We can only surmise that Attlee must have suffered an acute case of historical amnesia during this speech, allowing him to glide over the brutal British response to the Indian Mutiny of 1857, one that involved tying captured rebels to the ends of cannons and blasting them into smithereens.
But if this grim episode could be said to be one which at the time of Attlee’s speech was lost in the mists of time, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, when British troops murdered at least 400 people protesting against British colonial rule, could not. And if Amritsar wasn’t enough to stir any residual guilt in the breast of Mr Attlee, on behalf of the British State, what about the Bengal Famine of 1943, just four years earlier, during which three million died due to the actions of Attlee’s predecessor, Winston Churchill?
The partition of India by the British in 1947 was a disaster, leading directly to appalling communal violence slaughter and entrenching the decades of enmity that has existed between India and Pakistan ever since, with Kashmir a major factor in this enmity.
At least when he was prime minister in 2011, David Cameron had the decency to apologize for Britain’s egregious legacy in India and its role in the intractable dispute over Kashmir. This he did during an official visit to Pakistan upon being asked what should be done about the Indian administered region. “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”
It’s just a pity that Cameron didn’t hold on to that thought when it came to his push for Western military intervention in Libya in the same year. But that’s another story.
The crises which have engulfed Hong Kong and Kashmir make a strong case not for British interference but for British reparations. This in compensation for London’s role in laying the historical ground for the strife and unrest now taking place.
By John Wight