Eastern promise

A Modern History of Hong Kong (1841-1997)

Steve Tsang <em>I B Tauris, 352pp, £35</em>

ISBN 18606

You can visit some places without feeling marked by the acquaintance. I doubt, however, whether many visitors to Hong Kong leave without strong opinions about the city - usually overwhelmingly positive ones.

There is the raffish bustle of a great maritime city - the crowded backstreets behind the glass-and-concrete high-rise blocks, the barbers out on the pavement, shopfronts piled high with mysterious smoked fish, live chickens and rabbits in wicker cages, statues of bellicose household gods, pretty girls in miniskirts, old men with cigarettes held at the very tip of their long fingers. Everyone, you think, is engaged in the relatively harmless pastime of making money - and then you turn a corner into a dusty square to find a group of elderly t'ai chi practitioners, or couples dancing the foxtrot to a 1950s band.

Hong Kong's history is an extraordinary consequence of the opium trade, encouraged by Britain to help pay the costs of governing India and of buying silk and other commodities from China. Good can clearly come out of evil, though Steve Tsang reminds us that smoking opium or using it for medicinal purposes was not considered wicked in Britain at the time.

Tsang's history is authoritative and well-researched (though it is a surprise to see no reference in the bibliography to Hong Kong by Jan Morris, the best evocation of the city). From rock to great metropolis, the story storms along, full of heroes and villains, eccentrics and visionaries, bounders and buccaneers. There is Sir Mark Young, the first British governor to surrender a colony since Britain lost America in 1782; there are the senior businessmen from the colony's hongs trying to fight off the invading Japanese; there are the colonial servants, steeped unfashionably in free-market economics, who laid the foundations for the boom years; and above all there are the Chinese themselves, mostly economic migrants or political refugees, who built a phenomenal success out of the combination of their own courage, skill and energy and an un- usually benign paternalistic government.

Trying to learn lessons from history can be like trying to weave carpets from cobwebs. But perhaps there are three that we can take from this gallant tale. First, Hong Kong shows that it is possible to be a liberal society without being democratic, though it is hard to think of other examples. Tsang argues convincingly that colonial rule in Hong Kong changed almost by accident into an administration "that met all the requirements for the best possible government in the Chinese political tradition by the early 1980s". This achievement, he goes on to say, was unmatched "in over 2,000 years of China's history as a unified country". Ironically, having accomplished this, the people of Hong Kong concluded that they wanted more - they wanted democracy.

For Tsang, the argument that democracy could not be offered to Hong Kong because China was against it is far too simplistic. This was a British assumption, not a Chinese assertion, at least until very late in the day, when the colonial power was negotiating the handover. When the agreement finally reached - the Joint Declaration - was debated in parliament, "a majority supported it", he writes, "on the understanding that democratisation would be introduced . . . as part of the deal". But by this stage, China was opposed.

The second lesson is that in an open society it is inadvisable, and usually wrong, to think that you can make decisions about people's lives behind closed doors. When Governor Murray MacLehose visited Peking in 1979 to try to get assurances from the Chinese leadership about Hong Kong's future, it never occurred to him and his advisers "that they should have sought the views of the people with whose future they were dealing". Tsang notes that the initiative backfired and "turned into a disaster". In 1992, I did not believe that I could negotiate the last stages of the transition in secret and then tell the people of Hong Kong what I had decided on their behalf.

Third, we often overestimate the importance of politics. Hong Kong in the 1990s enjoyed unparalleled economic progress and social stability despite the gloomy newspaper headlines. Tsang does not ask whether real life in Hong Kong would have been quite so contented if the last colonial oppressor had been seen as a mere agent of Peking, denying Hong Kong citizens their promised rights.

Political thunderstorms appear to have returned to Hong Kong at just the moment that it is emerging remarkably successfully from the repercussions of the Asian financial crash. It remains a puzzle to those who love Hong Kong and admire China that the leadership of the People's Republic, so dexterous in handling most other issues, does not seem to bring the same guile and wisdom to its relationship with Hong Kong. Perhaps there are those who worry that, as at the end of the 19th century, Hong Kong will become a base for the advocates of revolutionary change.

I do not for one moment believe this is true. Hong Kong's patriotic citizens are moderate unless unreasonably provoked. What is true, however, is that Hong Kong represents an idea in harmony with Confucian tradition and modern demands - an idea of how Chinese men and women can govern themselves, bringing together benevolent authority and representative participation. This is an idea whose time will come in China, as surely as the sun rises each morning over the Great Wall that girdles the country on whose success so much of our future depends.

Chris Patten is a former governor of Hong Kong. His book East and West is published by Macmillan

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Religion: Why do we still give a damn?