HONG KONG — Chen Zuoer, a Beijing official who helped negotiate Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule 15 years ago, said on a recent visit here that he was heartbroken to learn that Hong Kong protesters have taken to waving colonial-era flags emblazoned with Britain’s Union Jack.
‘‘Those flags should be sent to history museums, rather than being displayed in the streets,’’ Chen said.
In some way, though, the appearance of old emblems of empire among demonstrators with gripes against Beijing has been a propaganda gift to China’s ruling Communist Party, which has long dismissed protests in Hong Kong as the work of traitorous conspirators loyal to foreign powers, particularly Britain and the United States.
Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper controlled by the party, seized on the flag-waving as evidence of the danger posed by a small group of ‘‘ambitious wolves’’ bent on bringing chaos to the former colony in the service of China’s foes.
‘‘There is no need for Chen Zuoer to be heartbroken,’’ the newspaper intoned, asserting that most Hong Kongers embrace their city’s “inseparable ties to the motherland.’’
The number of people parading colonial-era symbols has been minuscule and doesn’t reflect any widespread hankering for a return of British rule.
But after 15 years as part of China, a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese and deeply proud of its Chinese heritage has increasingly come to view the rest of the country as a source of trouble, not pride, that needs to be kept at arm’s length.
Britain’s retreat from Hong Kong in 1997, which turned a ‘‘crown colony’’ into a ‘‘special administrative region of China,’’ marked a singular, triumphal moment in a historical narrative at the heart of the Communist Party’s legitimacy: Only the party can ‘‘wipe clean the shame’’ of colonial-era humiliations and fully represent the national aspirations of all Chinese.
Beijing used to denounce its critics here and elsewhere as anticommunist but now vilifies them as anti-China, an insult that turns any challenge to the ruling party into an assault on the Chinese nation.
In the years since it returned to Chinese rule, however, Hong Kong has repeatedly rejected Beijing’s Communist Party-dominated take on Chinese patriotism.
It cheers Chinese athletes at the Olympic Games, honors Chinese astronauts, and holds a big fireworks display to celebrate China’s Oct. 1 national day, which was marred this year by a Hong Kong ferry crash in which at least 39 people died.
But from protests by half a million people in 2003 over a proposed antisubversion law demanded by Beijing to recent demonstrations against the introduction of patriotic education in schools, Hong Kongers — nearly all Chinese by blood, culture, and language — have in large numbers defied Beijing’s patriotic story line of an ecstatic reunion of a long-divided family with a common identity.
‘‘Of course, I’m Chinese. One hundred percent Chinese,’’ said Kenny Choi, a 23-year-old who works in a printing factory and took part in a protest last month that featured the waving of British colonial-era flags. “But I don’t trust Chinese Communists. . . . Hong Kong is different and has to preserve its own values.’’
Choi joined the rally, held at Sheung Shui railway station near a border crossing to mainland China, to express his anger over throngs of mainland traders who pour in each day by train to buy baby formula, cosmetics, and other goods for resale back on the other side of the border.
The protest had an ugly, almost xenophobic tinge, with crudely insulting placards demanding that mainlanders ‘‘go home’’ and ‘‘get lost.’’ But it reflected a growing resentment in Hong Kong toward fellow Chinese from across the border.