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28 June 2022

From the NS archive: Enter the dragon

27 June 1997: With the handover of Hong Kong, China’s relationship with the former colonial fiefdom will be the most important story of the latter part of the century.

By Jonathan Fenby

At midnight on 1 July 1997 the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong, from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, took place. It was a moment rich in significance, not just marking the end of colonial rule but signifying the uncertain future faced by the Hong Kongers. In a piece written the week before the handover, Jonathan Fenby assessed what came next. “When it comes to freedoms,” he wrote optimistically, “it may be naive to say so… but I simply cannot see… a civil service that imposes censorship or locks up peaceful demonstrators.” However, he was also aware of the dangers if Beijing’s words of good faith proved false. Then, “six million people could find themselves moving from benign colonialism to an authoritarianism that would stifle not only their freedoms but also their place as one of the world’s great commercial and financial hubs.”


Hong Kong doesn’t seem a likely setting for a laboratory test. Under the increasingly humid summer skies, with its perpetual sense of movement and endlessly bustling people (not to mention its heavily polluted air), the world’s last great colony is far from meeting the clinical requirements of science, social or otherwise. Still, this tiny territory, a pimple on the backside of China, is about to be the subject of one of the most important experiments of the 21st century.

As things look today, the most important question as we emerge from the post-1945 world may be what happens with China. (Not so much what happens to China because, important as that is, Beijing will, by and large, make up its own mind about everything from the political structure after Deng Xiaoping to the impending loss of 100 million industrial jobs.) The outside world will have some impact: a decision by the World Trade Organisation to admit China or, in the opposite direction, the removal of Most Favoured Nation trading status by Washington would affect market reform-minded planners in Beijing. But what really counts as far as other nations are concerned is how they engage with this potential second superpower. In this, Hong Kong will play a pivotal role, far beyond its size or formal status.

The end of empire is fodder for a rash of television programmes, books, articles and kitsch. But to see the return of Hong Kong to China in those terms is to miss what really matters. For most people here, the transition from colonial rule has long passed. There will be no mad rush to the airport for flights to London, no panic selling of colonial furniture, no Hong Kong equivalent of France’s pieds noirs or Miami’s Cubans. And, short of something going catastrophically wrong, why should there be? This is, after all, a place whose population is made up largely of refugees and their children, perhaps the most truly international city in the world. Its two resources are people and geography. It lives and prospers by their ingenuity and by its position at the mouth of the Pearl River delta, close to the massive expansion zones of southern China.

Now this world-view colony, with more wealth per head of population than its outgoing sovereign power, is returning to a nation whose history has not been international, which has looked down upon and then been humiliated by outside powers and which has gone through the most tumultuous half-century of any major nation since 1945. Given its history, it is not surprising that the government in Beijing lays huge stress on national unity. Given the achievement of the Long March, neither is it surprising that China’s rulers have a highly developed fear of opposition, however minimal it may appear. For China political diversity amounts to dissidence.

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In Hong Kong, diversity has become the order of the day, with myriad competing political parties, a vocal press spread across the spectrum and a degree of personal freedom that meets any international standard. That is where the first part of the experiment lies. What happens after this territory, where political and individual liberties have accompanied an unprecedented economic boom, becomes part of the last major nation ruled by the Communist Party? If this is the first vital test for Hong Kong, it also presents China with a puzzle. Chinese officials speak of Hong Kong as a bridge to the world. But how to balance nationhood and the particularism of the Hong Kong way of life? Will Deng’s “one country, two systems” concept turn into a hollow phrase, as the one country dominates the Hong Kong system? Or will it be a model for China’s political development, for the return of Taiwan, and an assurance that freedom in China does not simply amount to freedom to get rich?

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[See also: “You have to say when things are wicked”: Chris Patten’s lessons from negotiating with China]

In another domain Hong Kong is the testing-point for the debate about Asian and universal values. Westerners such as the outgoing governor deny the very existence of Asian values. Critics who insist on universal human rights see the stress put by Malaysia or Singapore on obedience, social order and consensus under a strong leader as no more than an argument for authoritarianism. The proponents of such values view them as an essential part of Asian society and a key to the region’s economic success.

Tung Chee-hwa, the man who on Tuesday becomes chief executive of the Special Administration Region (SAR), talks much of the importance of Chinese values and social order. He admires Singapore. In his heart he doesn’t have much time for western-style politics. A shipping tycoon, his family firm was rescued with the help of money from China a decade ago. Like Deng Xiaoping, he would characterise Hong Kong as an economic, not a political city.

On the other hand, you have the democratic politicians who were given a great lease of life by the political reforms of the last days of British rule. They will have a hard time in the coming year, as their legislative platform disappears. But the reality of what lies ahead may be rather more complex than the simplistic, black-and-white contrast between the democratic Galahads and Joans of Arc, on the one side, and China and the man it selected to run Hong Kong after 1 July, on the other. Contacts are going on between some of the leading white knights and Tung, who this week appealed to them to work with him in charting a new democratic future for Hong Kong. One of the most intelligent politicians here, Christine Loh, has recently established a new party that will appeal primarily to younger, middle-class Hong Kongers who think democratic principles will not be incompatible with involvement with SAR’s future. Both Tung and China’s foreign minister say demonstrations critical of Beijing could go on within the law.

The question for the democratic camp is how far pragmatic survival can be pursued without betraying principle. Even with an unfriendly electoral system, it could win a comfortable majority of the 20 popularly elected seats in the new legislature next summer. That will make it very much a minority voice in the 60-seat chamber, but it could still be the biggest single party.

As for China, there are reassurances at every corner: the major emphasis is on Hong Kong making its own laws to govern its own future – outside the domains of defence and foreign policy, which are reserved for Beijing. Of course all this may turn out to be empty words. The chill of winter may descend after the world’s media have withdrawn from their second mass visit here, for the World Bank/IMF meeting in the autumn.

But perhaps the most telling argument for at least measured optimism lies in the continued presence of Hong Kong’s senior civil servants. Led by the formidable chief secretary, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, they have run the place in ministerial fashion under Chris Patten’s governorship. Their influence will almost certainly decline under Tung: he does not think civil servants should shape policy and has already set up a couple of task forces on housing and education that seriously undercut the departmental secretaries. Chan has spoken publicly about when principles may lead to resignation. That made the headlines, but perhaps more telling was her criticism in the same interview of Tung’s inexperience in government.

If the new regime is to succeed and act as China’s external bridge into the next century, it needs Chan and her colleagues – including the new, independent-minded chief justice. They can keep Hong Kong running, ensure that corruption does not spread, and preserve the rule of the common law. And when it comes to freedoms, it may be naive to say so – particularly for an editor who has had his tussles with bureaucracy – but I simply cannot see Chan presiding over a civil service that imposes censorship or locks up peaceful demonstrators.

There is, inevitably, speculation that she and her like are not long for the SAR. Certainly to a conservative patriarch such as Tung her recent interview with Newsweek must have come as both a shock and a challenge. Imagine the reaction from Downing Street or the White House if Sir Robin Butler had spoken in such terms of Tony Blair. The future may, indeed, be set to a secret scenario drawn up by Tung and Beijing. Already the name of another senior female official is being bandied about as a potential successor to Chan, and the wise money has pinpointed its favourite to succeed Tung himself in a few years’ time. Hong Kong is never short of rumour and conspiracy theories. But the flip-side is that this isn’t the kind of place which lends itself to historical inevitability or behaves according to a pre-ordained path. It is too alive and too free-spirited for that, and this is a time when it needs to summon up all the spirit that has made it a miraculous success story of the late-20th century.

[See also: Dispossession and defiance: how Hong Kong’s struggle explains our world]

The greatest danger, as Christine Loh puts it, may be that of falling into a victim complex – even though some politicians almost seem to relish facing a martyr’s fate. For instance, Hong Kong’s democratic’ La Pasionaria, Emily Lau, says members of her party have made sure their children know how to cook instant noodles so that they will have something to eat “when mum and dad are in prison”. And, in distant counterpoint, you can hear Washington’s cold-war veterans girding up to go into battle – in their terms – as Jesse Helms promises to “take up Hong Kong’s fight” and some of his colleagues suggest suspending MFN status, which would cost Hong Kong tens of thousands of jobs that depend on trade with China.

In the end this is a matter for the pimple and the post-celestial empire – and, through this tiny slice of the world’s most populous nation, for China’s relationship with the world. If Hong Kong went “wrong” (however that is defined), a fresh freeze could set in, engagement with China would grind down, the nations of Asia would be faced with an agonising choice, China-bashing could become a path to the post-Clinton White House – and six million people could find themselves moving from benign colonialism to an authoritarianism that would stifle not only their freedoms but also their place as one of the world’s great commercial and financial hubs.

If things go “right”, or reasonably so, Hong Kong may be able to play a key role in defining the relationship between China and the world in the next century. The snag is that it cannot be seen to be doing this. China’s rulers remain suspicious of Hong Kong as a seedbed for revolt: the financial support that Hong Kong supplied for the Tiananmen demonstrators and the million who marched here are only a blink of an eye ago, in Chinese terms.

In the winter Tung broke into an amiable breakfast conversation in his boardroom to run out a warning about the danger of Hong Kong becoming a base for hostile anti-China forces. Fear of the Hong Kong virus eating away at the primacy of the Communist Party is still rife in China. When a proposed toughening up of regulations on demonstrations was watered down by the incoming administration, one element remained immovable. There had to be a ban on anything that infringed national security – China’s national security, that is. So Hong Kong has to play its role almost without doing so, accepting its new status by cleaving to the values that have made it what it is. Beijing has to be brought to an acceptance that China has nothing to fear from eminently respectable demonstrators and the proponents of the common law.

In this deeper game the attentions of Jesse Helms, or the setting of benchmarks for Hong Kong to live up to by the British, are not terribly relevant. For we live at the heart of an enormous gamble in which the rules can shift from day to day as different interests coalesce and diverge. It is a process in which there can be no absolute winner, because that would mean there would also be an absolute loser – and Beijing is not going to let itself fill that role.

The handover will be a time for meditations on the sweeping away of democratic bodies, and controversy over the US and British boycott of the swearing-in of the selected provisional legislature to replace the elected body on 1 July. This being Hong Kong, there will also be anxious speculation about whether the stock market and property booms will continue. But what really counts is the much broader unscientific experiment that will be launched as the fireworks spray over the harbour and China reclaims the once barren rock in the sea. This goes to the heart of Hong Kong, and matters for the world, if the world really cares. Watch this space, and understand what is at stake.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: The betrayal of Hong Kong]

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