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Mourners of Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong send Beijing message of defiance

There is a double meaning– to send condolence messages to the Royal Family over its loss of Queen Elizabeth and to indirectly protest the hardline handling of protests by the Chinese authorities of the city.

With flowers, grief and pens to sign a book of condolence at the consulate, some 2,500 people thronged the pavement along the building. They have come to thank and bid the last goodbye to the “boss lady” or “lady in charge” which is how the Queen has been referred to by Hong Kong citizens in Cantonese during the colonial years.

Some remembered both of the Queen’s visits to the former British colony – first in 1975 and then in 1986 when the territory still belonged to the UK.

Queue members want to sign the condolence book. Initially scheduled to remain available until late Friday, owing to the exceptional numbers wishing to pay respects to the Queen, the Consulate decided to extend condolence book opening hours.

The queue for the book of condolence at the British Consulate will close today at 4pm.

Waiting times are currently upwards of 3 hours. Please make sure you bring water and appropriate clothing.

Those wishing to leave a floral tribute only may arrive directly to the Consulate.

— UK in Hong Kong 🇬🇧 (@UKinHongKong) September 13, 2022

For those wishing to pay their respects in Macao a book of condolence for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be opened at the Morrison Chapel at the following times:
Wednesday 14 September, 17:00 – 20:00
Thursday 15 September, 17:00 – 20:00

— UK in Hong Kong 🇬🇧 (@UKinHongKong) September 14, 2022

But apart from paying homage to the UK’s longest-ruling monarch, for many Hong Kong citizens it serves as an opportunity to subtly voice discontent with how China has tightened its grip on what used to be a vibrant and economically liberal city. But ever since the British transferred the territory over to China 25 years ago, citizens and critics felt liberties steadily fade.

Visiting the consulate to pay condolences also happens to be a rare opportunity for a mass gathering – something that China greatly limited ever since the imposition of national security law in June 2020 in an attempt to quench the increasingly potent pro-democracy protests that had been rocking the city since 2019. The dissent, as well as public and mass gatherings, have been mostly curtailed by clampdowns coupled with stringent coronavirus restrictions.

In memory of Her Majesty The Queen, we reflect on her dedication to her role as Head of the Commonwealth.

— Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (@FCDOGovUK) September 13, 2022

Showing sympathy to the Royal Family, which had been the symbol of the British rule and, arguably, a freer and more joyful era for the city, some citizens intend to react to Beijing’s attempts to efface the period from the collective consciousness. Local authorities, as reported by CNN, have recently introduced school books that claim the city was never even a colony to begin with. Instead, the books refer to the period of British rule as a “forcible occupation.”

“I feel angry that the Hong Kong government is not showing any respect properly [to the Queen]. They’re scared of the Chinese government telling them off, but we were part of the colony,” a retiree by the name of Wing, born in the 1960s, told CNN outside the consulate on Monday.

For her part, another queue member, Sylvia Lee, expressed her sadness to hear of the Queen’s death, adding that she was a symbol of stability across the world.

“No one lives forever and we knew this day would come someday. She was a respected figure, and the government during the colonial period made many contributions to Hong Kong’s development, especially in the 70s and 80s,” Ms Lee told CNN, referring to a period when governors appointed to the city built up its public housing and transport infrastructure.

British colonial rule not without flaw

Although the colonial period is perceived as more relaxed than the heavy-handed Beijing rule, it too had its downsides. To recall, a spike in the value of ferry fares sparked riots in the 1960s. Protesters demanded better labour rights. The situation slumped into a chaos of strikes and bomb attacks that at times brought the city to a standstill.

The discontent forced the British colonial government’s hand to shower the city people with a series of welfare reforms, including public housing programs and compulsory free education. Still, critics of the era point at the lack of universal suffrage at the time, saying London overlooked its duty by failing to grant British citizenship to Hong Kong residents at the time of the handover in 1997. What was offered instead was a limited passport that did not give them the right to live and work in Britain. The UK has tried to atone for the half-hearted solution by creating new pathways to citizenship via a new type of visa ever since the national security law was introduced.

“It was [the Queen’s] empire that, in 1997, handed us over to China against our wishes,” Jeffrey Ngo, a Washington-based activist born during the last few years of colonial Hong Kong, told CNN, stressing that while he himself was too young to remember life under British rule, the older generations of Hong Kong citizens, to his mind, look back on Queen Elizabeth II’s reign with devoted fondness “because they associate that with a freer, simpler, happier bygone era.”

— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) September 14, 2022

It was on Thursday, September 8, that Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, the nation’s figurehead and a towering presence on the world stage for seven decades, passed away peacefully at her home in Scotland at the age of 96. The funeral ceremony is scheduled for Monday.

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