Pearl returns to oyster

Hong Kong's Transitions 1842-1997 - The Fall of Hong Kong - Hong Kong

June 20, 1997

At midnight on June 30, 155 years of British rule in Hong Kong cease. The handover to China raises complex questions for the colony's institutions, economy and citizens, with Hong Kong's thriving universities firmly at the core of its people's hopes and fears. The THES looks at the issues involved

It used to be a staple image for cartoonists depicting the handover of Hong Kong: the territory emptied of its prosperous, hard-working and wealth-generating people, virtually the "barren rock" first ceded to the British in 1842. "Here you are, just the way we found it," explains the last governor to a bemused Deng Xiaoping as they survey the wasteland in one such illustration. During her undergraduate career in Britain, a Hong Kong Chinese friend had recurring nightmares in a similar vein, dreaming of returning home only to find, as she emerged from the arrivals hall at Kai Tak airport, that the city was completely deserted, buildings standing empty and vehicles abandoned, her family and friends nowhere to be found. It is significant, though, that she began having this dream in 1990, when the events of the previous year, culminating in the massacre of democracy movement supporters in Beijing, were only too fresh in all our minds. Mutual friends were publishing collections of writings from the movement, and some had been present in Tiananmen Square right up until the final military assault began on the evening of June 3. For some, memories of that night have not faded, as was shown earlier this month in the 55,000-strong candle-lit vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park. But in many other cases people's thoughts seem to have moved on: the mainland Chinese economy continues to achieve unprecedentedly rapid growth, and Hong Kong has played an important role in the success to date of the reforms begun by the late Deng Xiaoping. So surely, when the ceremonies at midnight on June 30 make formal a transition which in many respects has already taken place, Hong Kong will continue to flourish, since this will be in China's interests as much as in those of the territory itself?

Of the three volumes reviewed here, Michael Yahuda's concentrates most directly and exclusively on this question. Mark Roberti's main concern is how we got to this point, from the beginning of Sino-British negotiations in the late 1970s, and he makes his conclusions abundantly clear in the book's subtitle, "China's triumph, Britain's betrayal". The third book, edited by Judith Brown and Rosemary Foot, is both more specific and more wide ranging than the other two as it is a collection of papers covering such topics as Hong Kong's history as part of the British informal empire in China; the politics of the colonial period and of the handover; Hong Kong's economic prospects under Chinese rule; and the changing nature of Hong Kong Chinese identities and the Hong Kong diaspora. To round off the collection, and for those too busy even for Yahuda's brisk, 150-page discussion of the problems facing China as it wipes out the last trace of the "unequal treaties" of the 19th century, the last chapter in Brown and Foot's volume is a potted version of Hong Kong: China's Challenge in fewer than 20 pages.

Yahuda is a distinguished commentator on the East Asian region, and the full version of his thoughts on the possible futures of Hong Kong and China is well worth the attention of anyone seriously interested in how the new mainland leadership will fare as it seeks to manage the retrocession. This is a soberly academic, calm and balanced examination of the likely impact of Chinese rule on Hong Kong and of Hong Kong's distinctive way of life on China, and the absence of polemic is as welcome as it is rare in western discussions of Hong Kong's future under Chinese sovereignty. At an early stage the author makes it clear that there is much in what may be called the "golden egg" theory of the handover, ie that given the manifest economic benefits China derives from Hong Kong's present role, and given the enormous kudos domestically and internationally which the Chinese Communist party leadership would derive from a successful handover, it is not rational to expect them to take any action which would damage confidence in Hong Kong's future and lead to an exodus of people and money from the territory, a collapse of the property market and/or stockmarket, and international condemnation of the Chinese government.

The problem with this scenario, however, is that the party leadership might still kill the Hong Kong goose by accident, out of ignorance of what it is in the territory's institutions and way of life that enables it to thrive. Yahuda notes that at least some at the top of the party do understand the significance of the rule of law and other aspects of Hong Kong's environment, which differ sharply from what obtains north of the border. But he acknowledges that such an understanding of the importance of genuinely leaving Hong Kong's systems intact after the handover is by no means universal among the CCP's top leadership or at the lower levels of the party. Thus there is still a distinct possibility that a lack of understanding of the consequences of interference in Hong Kong could lead to serious damage to the territory's economic prospects despite this being contrary to China's own best interests. The author does not play down the difficulties facing China's post-Deng, post-revolutionary leadership as it copes with serious problems in the mainland's economic and social fabric as well as the return of Hong Kong. And he gives considerable attention to the international ramifications of a disastrous handover, particularly with reference to Taiwan. But his focus on the benefits for China, the East Asian region, and the rest of the world if the handover goes well is a refreshing break from the gloomy prognostications of many observers, myself included.

In complete contrast, Mark Roberti's The Fall of Hong Kong does not pretend to be a balanced account of the options open to China and Britain at each stage of the negotiations over Hong Kong. The heroes and villains in this story are clearly identified, and the contribution to this revised edition of an introduction by Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic party and the territory's foremost advocate of greater democracy, quickly removes any lingering doubt about the line to be taken. Roberti's allegiances show in the way he explains away behind-the-scenes meetings of prodemocracy figures as being in the best interests of the people of Hong Kong, but almost universally paints such dealings as part of a cynical conspiracy when representatives of perfidious Albion or the "butchers of Beijing" are involved. Having said that, he does substantiate his main charges against Britain. For example, he contends that it was simply not true that the 1984 joint declaration's ambiguity on what sort of elections would be held to constitute the new legislature, and what the "accountability" of the Hong Kong government to this body actually meant was an inevitable result of time running out during the negotiations. Roberti shows convincingly that in fact repeated discussion of these issues had left the two sides with irreconcilable differences, so the language of the declaration was fudged to avoid revealing the inadequacy, from a Hong Kong point of view, of the democratic safeguards built into the agreement.

Roberti is less convincing in his argument that it would have been perfectly possible for Britain to introduce a greater degree of representative government in Hong Kong long before the 1990s, thus avoiding the appearance of acting in a dangerously provocative way towards China. As it was, Governor Chris Patten's proposals were condemned for endangering Sino-British relations during the handover by many, even though they came at a point when a majority of Hong Kong's population, in the wake of the 1989 democracy movement in China, was pushing most strongly for such reform. But it is harder to dispute his assertion that Patten's government, despite the reforms, has been as executive-led as all other colonial administrations. In effect, Patten has taken the position that "the legislature is only supposed to act independently after China takes over. It is hardly surprising that Beijing sees him as a hypocrite."

Hong Kong's conservative business elite does not come out of this account particularly well either, being portrayed for the most part as arrogantly convinced of their right to run the territory by virtue of their contribution to its great wealth. Roberti states his case forcefully and uncompromisingly, but he is able to substantiate many, if not all, of his accusations. He clearly cares deeply about the future of Hong Kong under Chinese rule and expresses here his genuine concern that it is very much the Communist party that sent in the tanks in Beijing in 1989 which will be calling the shots in Hong Kong from July 1. It is not exactly the scoop of the century to reveal that British foreign policy is often shaped less by high moral principle than it is by somewhat disreputable domestic concerns (immigration and race), and by the desire to preserve the appearance of acting honourably while avoiding the inconvenience of actually doing so. But should things go badly soon after the handover, Roberti's book will make uncomfortable reading for those involved.

Attention is also given to the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong in Hong Kong's Transitions. In these talks, we learn from Robert Bickers's fine essay, British officials were initially taken aback by the strength of Chinese feeling about the last remnant of the British presence in China, although they should not have been. "Clearly," he observes, "a little history might have helped." This is where the great value of Hong Kong's Transitions lies, since in several of its chapters it provides the longer historical perspective which has been at best only briefly sketched in many books marking the handover. This book is the place to look for detailed answers to frequently asked questions. For instance, why was Hong Kong not returned to the Nationalist government along with the other British possessions in China in the 1920s? Why did the Chinese government wait for the expiry of the New Territories lease in 1997 when it could have sent in the People's Liberation Army, or subverted the colony from within? And if Chris Patten's democratising reforms really are too little, too late, why was a more representative government not introduced sooner?

There is considerable consistency of views within this volume on the Patten proposals, with Brian Hook, James T. H. Tang and others concluding that the reforms were both essential in view of popular demands for democratisation within the colony that predated Tiananmen, and bound to enrage China; there simply was not a better solution to be devised at the time. As to the question of whether Britain is culpable for leaving the reforms so late, some persuasive arguments against the Roberti thesis are put forward in several of these papers. In view of all the somewhat glib talk about Hong Kong and China's mutually beneficial economic relationship, it is also salutary to read here Michael Taylor's views on the potential and actual conflicts of economic interest across the border. He discusses with clarity and wit some of the great unmentionables of the "Greater Chinese" economy, such as capital flight and disguised trade between the mainland and Taiwan, phenomena which he describes as being "far from an amusing sideshow: it is by now probably the main event." Although a very academic volume, this is also a highly readable collection of papers from which undergraduates and general readers could gain much; students of imperialism will find food for thought in the chapters by John Darwin and Robert Bickers, whether or not they have a particular interest in Hong Kong or China.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in international history, Keele University.

Hong Kong's Transitions 1842-1997

Editor - Judith M. Brown and Rosemary Foot
ISBN - 0 333 67362 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £37.50
Pages - 213

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