Niggling nitpicking in Hong Kong bureaucratese

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Did China "take back" (shōuhuí 收回) Hong Kong from Great Britain or did it "recover" (huīfù 恢復) the former colony?  Even though representatives of the Chinese government have used the former expression in the past, they now insist that there was no "taking back", only "recovering" what was always China's.

On July 1, 1997, was there a “handover of sovereignty” (zhǔquán yíjiāo 主權移交)?  Despite the fact that this phrase was widely used by diplomats to describe what took place between the governments of Britain and the PRC, the Protocol Division of the Hong Kong government is now attempting to retroactively excise this offending language from official publications, including school textbooks.

Such tergiversation on the part of the government has led to a furor in Hong Kong, with opposition critics saying that it is disrespectful of history.

There are two major problems with the government's rewriting of language concerning the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from Great Britain to the People's Republic of China:

1. PRC officials themselves have all along been using the phrases that the government is now replacing

2. The PRC government is attempting to justify its whitewashing of phraseology concerning sovereignty by claiming that China never yielded it to Great Britain.  There are two major problems with such an assertion:

a. "China" did yield sovereignty to Great Britain for 156 years

b. the entity that ceded control of Hong Kong to Great Britain was the Qing Dynasty (ruled over by Manchus for nearly three centuries from 1636-1912), not the People's Republic of China, which only came into existence in 1949

Consequently, on several grounds, it is dishonest and untruthful to tamper with the language concerning the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC on July 1, 1997 that has been in use since that time.


"Nothing wrong with school history textbooks reflecting Chinese view of Hong Kong handover, Carrie Lam says:  Chief executive says people are overreacting to government-appointed panel’s opposition to description of Hong Kong’s 1997 shift from British to Chinese rule in school textbook", Alvin Lum, SCMP (4/24/18)

"Government rewrites history of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, one inconvenient phrase at a time:  ‘Handover of sovereignty’ no longer an acceptable way to refer to the events of 1997, according to government department", Alvin Lum, SCMP (5/1/18)

"Calling 1997 event ‘handover’ belies ‘substance of momentous occasion’, Hong Kong No 2 official Matthew Cheung says:  Chief secretary points to earlier article by the Post and defends government’s move to erase word from its website", Alvin Lum, SCMP (5/3/18)

[H.t. Stefan Krasowski, Mark Metcalf, and John Lagerwey]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 12:50 pm

    British sovereignty over Hong Kong was first acquired via what one of what subsequent Chinese nationalists often call the "unequal treaties" (ok, bù-píngděng tiáoyuē in pinyinized Mandarin, says wikipedia). I would have thought that long prior to 1997 there would have been a standardized euphemistic way of talking about things that resulted from those treaties that simultaneously acknowledged the objective historical reality of certain consequences (such as British dominion over HK) while denying the moral legitimacy of those consequences. Although maybe that would not be enough to lead to a standardized way of talking about undoing those consequences?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 6:06 pm

    From Fraser Howie:

    Britain gave it back. There was no legal need to give back HK (and Kowloon, maybe??) The NT had a 99 yr lease but the island most certainly did not!!!!

    I doubt China would "give back" anything.

  3. Eidolon said,

    May 11, 2018 @ 7:20 pm

    Britain gave it back, because Deng Xiaoping threatened to invade Hong Kong, had they refused to do so. Other options were presented by the British; Deng rejected them all.

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