Hong Kong and China, 1997

Essay by Allen Gaborro

Today, Hong Kong is enveloped in a climate of uncertainty as the long-awaited transfer of its sovereignty to China is finally consummated. As a climate that has been created by new political realities, it is an alien experience for the people of Hong Kong who have rarely been known to exhibit anything more than an apathetic disposition when it comes to issues of a politically sensitive nature. Although Hong Kong is renowned as a financial and investment mecca by venture capitalists and laissez-faire entrepreneurs the world over, few outside its borders are cognizant of the de-politicized temperament of its citizenry. This alludes to the fact that the city is a modernistic, self-fulfilling entity unto itself, a dense body of land deriving its fame and autonomy primarily from the triumph of its multi-billion dollar economic system. It also contains a vibrant society that keeps to itself and which places great emphasis on order and stability. After all, politics can breed unrest, particularly in a highly-polarized stage where it can agitate and traumatize an otherwise pacified community like Hong Kong’s.

Fortunately for Hong Kongers, both the order and stability that they have grown accustomed to has remained steadfast due to their ability to avoid becoming captive to any political ideology or struggle. If anything, Hong Kong’s political themes have almost always taken a backseat to its economic aspirations. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it has lived through only a smattering of short-lived internal disturbances since the end of World War Two—the worst probably being the communist-inspired riots of 1967. All in all, Hong Kongers have succeeded in cultivating an environment of social and political constancy even as their city is embedded in a region that is coterminous with political strife.

However, the limits of Hong Kongers’ restraint towards politics is now being tested by the imposing force of an ambitious China, which is striving to not only construct an economic behemoth within its expansive frontiers, but to also make restitution for a history of subordination to the West. China’s desire to eradicate the imperialist past from the depths of its national memory, along with its taking on the burden of proving itself worthy of the soaring label, "the biggest player in the history of man" as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew glorified it, has derailed the sense of security felt by many Hong Kongers. In an effort to atone for long-standing colonial injustices, in part by restoring Hong Kong to the all-embracing fold of a "Greater China," the socialist mandarins who rule the Middle Kingdom today are in undeniable earnest when it comes to asserting their presence in what is one of the most valuable territorial possessions in the world.

With the rise of Chinese hegemony in lands which Beijing considers to be Sino-dominions, scholars and pundits who hazard to prognosticate Hong Kong’s future vis-à-vis the mainland, are divided over the degree to which China intends to impose its will on the territory. It is more than likely that the Chinese leadership itself does not know to what extent it will be able to honor the "one-country, two-systems" arrangement espoused by China’s late Paramount Leader, Deng Xiaoping. Consequently, as the first signs of trouble arises in Hong Kong, as it seems almost bound to at some point, will the city bear witness to a tragic repetition of the 1989 bloodbath at Tienanmen square, or will a moderate, toned-down facsimile of Chinese authoritarianism take control of the situation?

Interlaced with promises of a prosperous future under the aegis of the Chinese nation is an approaching crisis in Hong Kong, a crisis of direction which will shape the character of China well into the 21st century. Beijing’s whittling away of Hong Kong’s liberal political structure—a preliminary process that began with the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984--is merely a preface to that crisis, a sharp introduction to what Beijing may have in store for its newest annexation. Political dislocation and its outgrowth, social upheaval, are perchance, awaiting Hong Kong just beyond the horizon, much closer than what any of the parties involved care to admit to or are aware of.

As the debate concerning Beijing’s strategical ends plays itself out, one thing is painfully clear: China has little interest in maintaining even a facade of democracy in Hong Kong. From exacting censorship on the media, to calling for alterations to history textbooks in order to nourish the salient and ascendant image of Chinese nationalism, to the dissolving of the democratically-elected 1995 legislature, Beijing has initiated the process of reversing the conditions that made Hong Kong responsive to the tenets of Lockean liberalism, an ideological foundation of Anglo-Saxon democratic values which were introduced to the territory only in recent years by the British colonizers. A 17th century defender of individualism and of the right to subvert unjust leaders and legislation, John Locke, the father of Western liberalism, would find himself an anathema in the eyes of China’s rulers, who accentuate their rendition of the term "consensus." C.H. Tung, Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, defines Chinese-styled "consensus" as an "emphasis on obligations to the community rather than the rights of the individual." Democracy as it is understood in the West, has no place in such a formula.

Still, there are those in Hong Kong who have spoken out in unguarded remonstration towards China’s recent actions. Showing no fear of the possibility of a backlash from Beijing for their stances, these individuals are pronounced in their defense of the territory’s budding democratic culture. Martin Lee, a distinguished lawyer, is one such libertarian. In 1995, his Democratic Party dominated Hong Kong’s first ever open legislative elections, easily becoming the majority party. Lee himself was the leading vote-recipient in that election. As an outspoken champion of individual liberties and the rule of law, Lee is seen by many as the last real buffer between what will be left of Hong Kong’s democracy after the handover and Beijing’s desire to suppress it.

In an April 1997 newspaper interview, Lee lamented that in Hong Kong, "the reality is that things do not look good." In his typically soft-spoken, but contumacious tone, Lee reminded the interviewer that "The Hong Kong people were promised we would be material masters of our own fate. We were given a promise of ‘hands off’ by China, but now they are hands on in every way." Smartly, Lee has made many similar remarks to the global media in the hope of making his case against Beijing’s anti-democratic posture to a worldwide audience. It signals his attempt to "internationalize" the question of Hong Kong. Beijing for its part, jealously regards the city as exclusively Chinese, and hastily reacts with indignation when it perceives even the slightest traces of foreign interference in any of its territories’ affairs.

In spite of Beijing’s best efforts though, the issue of Hong Kong has been internationalized; the gaze of the global community is now calibrated towards the former British colony, as well as towards how its new landlord governs it. The world will not be so quiescent a second time around if the homicidal scene at Tienanmen square in 1989 is repeated in the city. Ironically, while China’s leaders welcome the return of Hong Kong to the motherland with all the pomp and ceremony of a Chinese New Year, they may not realize that their reacquisition of the city could be setting the stage for future turmoil. If push ever came to shove in Hong Kong, Beijing could itself trapped between having to violently crush a major challenge to its authority and being worried about generating worldwide condemnation for doing so.

Certainly in the short-term, Hong Kong’s way of life will remain unchanged; Beijing will not see the need to make any earth-shattering revisions to the city’s thriving economic apparatus. Meanwhile, boisterous but otherwise innocuous pro-democracy demonstrations by groups such as the Democratic Party will be tolerated. However, the audacity of such groups are sure to swell with each perceived misstep by C.H. Tung’s administration,—Tung himself is regarded by many as a lackey of Beijing--, particularly if individual rights continue to be eroded. Revolutions are born from humble beginnings and the leadership in Beijing knows this all too well. But will the repercussions of a clashing of interests lead to a destructive confrontation between the communist masters of China and Hong Kong’s pro-democratic forces?

Several observers have used a technology metaphor in describing Hong Kong’s post-colonial relationship with China. If Hong Kong does indeed become the software that will guide China into the next millennium, then the hardware of the world’s most populous country is about to undergo a transformation more profound than the sweeping aside of its once-romantic, unwavering faith in Marxist dogma and even more profound than its move to a market economy. To be sure, the reacquisition of Hong Kong will produce new political and social openings in China, through which modern ideals of freedom and human rights, not to mention collective moral values, can be channeled through to even the most minute capillaries of society, government, and culture.

Joseph Levenson once wrote that China’s Marxist revolutionaries produced a revolution "against the world to join the world." Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty is a manifestation of this statement, for it reveals China’s embittered, but commanding rearticulation of its self to a world that once isolated it. It also represents Beijing’s bid to restratisfy the contemporary international order to its liking. In desiring to make itself a dominant player on the global stage, China has all but wagered its future on Hong Kong. To be sure, it is an investment that offers potentially spectacular returns, but it is also one laden with enormous risks that may turn out to have not been worth it in the end.


To TOCE-Mail the AuthorSerendipity Link