Bitter End

Alasdair St John

  • Hong Kong by Jan Morris
    Viking, 304 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 670 80792 3

‘May you live in interesting times!’ This most deadly of Chinese curses must be sounding in the minds of the people of Hong Kong as the territory creeps inexorably towards 30 June 1997, and its handing-back to Communist China. Ever since 1982, when Margaret Thatcher travelled to the Middle Kingdom to set the whole 1997 question alight, Hong Kong has been living through interesting – that is to say, difficult – times.

In September 1984, when Britain and China signed the Joint Declaration on the Future of Hong Kong, the people of Hong Kong breathed a collective sigh of relief. The negotiations had been arduous, often acrimonious, and at one point had even broken down. But in the end the two sovereign powers had joined together in a spirit of compromise, and had forged an Agreement which the then Governor of Hong Kong could commend to his subjects.

The Agreement decreed that Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region of China, enjoying a high degree of autonomy, and that its freedoms, economy and legal system would remain unaltered for at least fifty years. It promised that China would not interfere with the running of Hong Kong, and that the two territories would coexist peacefully, capitalism alongside Communism, according to the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ devised by Deng Xiaoping, China’s supreme leader and the true architect of the Agreement. Hong Kong people would rule Hong Kong, and to emphasise this the Agreement promised an elected legislature after 1997, something the British had never seen fit to introduce in over a hundred and forty years of imperial rule. Apart from this one innovation, nothing much would change. Hong Kong people could continue to pursue their favourite pastime of making as much money as possible in the shortest possible time, and could continue spending it equally quickly on horses, mahjong and Mercedes Benzes.

Initial reactions to the Sino-British Agreement were generally warm. ‘Put your hearts and minds at ease,’ Deng Xiaoping had earlier told jittery foreign investors in Hong Kong, and when the terms of the Agreement were known, from Tokyo to Wall Street there was a loosening of collars and a wiping of brows. In Westminster the Agreement was greeted with, if not jubilation, at least satisfaction. Britain had honoured its commitment to Hong Kong, and could leave its easternmost possession with dignity, bequeathing that gift to all departing colonies, a parliamentary system in its own image.

Meanwhile, in Peking, champagne corks were popping. Ever since the ‘unequal’ Treaty of Nanking, by which, in 1842, the British had wrested Hong Kong from the enfeebled Ching dynasty, the presence of this enclave of foreign devils on its southern flank had been an affront to China’s national pride, and the restoration of Hong Kong to the motherland was seen as a major achievement. The civilised manner in which it had been engineered was also meant to demonstrate to the world China’s new-found maturity, its coming in from the cold after decades of turmoil. With Hong Kong under their belts, China’s leaders could now turn their eyes across the Straits of Taiwan, where an even bigger prize beckoned.

And how was the Agreement perceived in Hong Kong itself? There were no lion dances in the streets, no banging of gongs, no eruption of firecrackers (illegal since the Seventies, but still easily obtainable). Undeniably, many people felt disillusioned with the British for handing Hong Kong over to a Communist regime, and with indecent haste. Others were either sceptical of China’s competence to run Hong Kong or frankly fearful of the prospect of Communist rule. But at least as many people felt a sense of purpose, an awareness not only of the difficulties but also of the possibilities that lay ahead. Despite its Western profile, Hong Kong is a profoundly Chinese city, and its people are probably more loyal to the concept, the historical entity, of China than the mainland Chinese themselves. While nervous of its practical consequences, very few Hong Kong Chinese would have disagreed in principle that Hong Kong ought to revert to Chinese sovereignty. After all, Hong Kong always had been Chinese soil. And, in 1984, it was felt that there was still time to make Hong Kong work after 1997. The Agreement itself appeared eminently reasonable. Over the border, in China, changes were afoot. The reformists were in power, the economy was shaking itself out and market freedoms were being introduced: the People’s Republic was taking the capitalist road. It was widely recognised within China itself that Hong Kong had a major role to play in its modernisation. Hong Kong was the goose that laid the golden eggs, and, for its people, this provided a form of guarantee. But even if China’s endeavours to modernise went awry, and an orthodox Communism were to settle over it again, Hong Kong would be sufficiently independent to take care of itself. Had not Sir Geoffrey Howe spoken of Her Majesty’s Government’s plan to develop a representative form of government in Hong Kong? And had not Deng himself, with that Chinese predilection for four-character slogans, spoken of gang ren zhi gang – ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’? So there was much to work for in 1984, and much to look forward to.

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