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.

Now, four years on, middle-class Hong Kong Chinese people talk, over the dinner table, not about property prices, as in Britain, but about emigration. There is scarcely a soul who does not possess a relative or a friend who is emigrating to Canada, or to Australia, or the United States, and everyone who has any plans at all plans to emigrate. Agencies – some of them dubious – have sprung up with advice on how to secure foreign passports; advertisements appear in the newspapers selling residence-related overseas investments. Hong Kong has started to experience an exodus of alarming proportions. Unofficial estimates are that as many as fifty thousand people (from a total population of under six million) will leave this year. It is the equivalent of the whole of Manchester or Birmingham upping and going.

Hong Kong has, of course, always been a stepping-stone to somewhere else, but this time it is different. Those leaving are not, as they were twenty or thirty years ago, the unskilled labourers or farm workers who now run the takeaways, restaurants and laundries in Europe and America, but professional people – accountants, business executives, heart surgeons, pop stars, academics – the very people who since the war have transformed Hong Kong from a grubby sweatshop economy into the most dazzling community in Asia. And they are not coming back. Already the brain drain is hampering the territory’s economic development and forcing companies to relocate to Singapore or Thailand, where the manpower is.

A couple of years ago people would have been ashamed to admit they were planning to emigrate. It was a taboo subject, which suggested lack of confidence in Hong Kong, and disloyalty to one’s Chinese heritage. But now people talk about it openly, pool resources and compare plans. The reasons cited for leaving are various – job opportunities, the search for a better place to bring up one’s children – but when pressed a little harder all admit to leaving for one reason only: fear of the Communist takeover in 1997. Confidence in Hong Kong is now at its lowest ever. The community has all but lost what residue of faith it had in Britain, and is unwilling as yet to take the risk of trusting China.

The Chinese community of Hong Kong has always eyed the British with understandable suspicion. In the beginning, Hong Kong was occupied by Britain as a base from which English merchants could peddle opium to China (in an interesting chapter on the early days of British rule, Jan Morris observes that the first great seal of the colony depicted beneath the royal crest a waterfront piled high with what were generally assumed to be opium chests). Even today, a large proportion of Hong Kong people sincerely (though quite erroneously) believe that Britain runs Hong for its own financial gain. When the Queen visited Hong Kong last year in the Royal Yacht Britannia, rumour had it that she had come in the yacht because a plane would not have been big enough to carry all the money she was repatriating.

At a more fundamental level, Hong Kong suspicion of British motives has centred on three related problems. The first is nationality. Successive Immigration Acts, culminating in those of 1981 and 1984, have whittled away Hong Kong people’s rights to British nationality or abode. Hong Kong British citizens – about half the population – will be left after 1997 with a British National (Overseas) passport which conveys no right to live in Britain, nor by itself any right to live in Hong Kong. Some people see in this a conspiracy to deny them a place of asylum should Hong Kong turn sour. The reasoning goes that the last thing Britain wants is two and a half million Chinese refugees on its doorstep. Nor would China willingly let the British provide Hong Kong people with an emergency exit, the equivalent of a vote of no confidence in China’s ability to run the place.

The second suspicion about Britain concerns its relations with China. As Jan Morris points out, relations between the two countries have never been so good. The history of Sino-British relations has been an unhappy one, dogged by warfare, acts of colonial aggression, and cultural misunderstanding. But the peaceful resolution of the Hong Kong question – ‘a problem left over from history’, as the Chinese delicately call it – has wiped the slate clean, allowing the two nations to meet as equals for the first time. The friendship between Geoffrey Howe and the former Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xuexian illustrates this new bond. Clearly, a civilised relationship between the two countries is in Hong Kong’s wider interest. Hong Kong is their great joint venture, and the territory’s stability in the next nine years hangs on their co-operation. Ironically, though, the better the relation, the swifter suspicions are aroused. A strong body of belief in Hong Kong has it that Britain sacrificed the territory in the interests of improving relations – particularly trade relations – with China, that Hong Kong was the bribe Britain paid to prise open the China market. Adherents of this school of thought will point you to the supposed ease with which Britain fell in with China’s insistence that Hong Kong should not be officially represented in the negotiations on its future (on the basis that since Hong Kong belonged to China, China automatically represented its interests). They point to the case with which they believe Britain conceded sovereignty. They point to the massive contracts awarded to British companies during the negotiations – most visibly, the contract for a major nuclear power plant at Daya Bay on the South China coast (within fall-out distance of Hong Kong).

Despite the fact that Britain fought unimaginably hard for Hong Kong during the negotiations, and that the level of British trade with China has, by international standards, been miserable, the British remain highly sensitive to accusations that they sold Hong Kong down the river to improve their balance of payments. Only a few weeks ago readers of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English-language newspaper, were treated to an article by Sir Geoffrey himself, rebutting such allegations in vociferous terms. And naturally, the more he protests, the more the sceptics shake their heads in disbelief. Perhaps the only way to convince people that Britain was fighting for Hong Kong’s, not its own interests, would be for Britain and China to have an almighty showdown. And that would cause the greatest damage of all.

To the extent that the Agreement on the future was acceptable to Hong Kong, it was so because it came packaged with a promise of greater democracy. After a century and a half of denying political power to the people, the British Government undertook, in 1984, to develop over the transitional period a more democratic government firmly rooted in the community. This was welcomed, since most people felt that only a Hong Kong practised in governing itself would be able to maintain its freedoms after 1997. But it is questionable whether that promise has been kept. Over the last three years China’s antipathy to the development of democracy in Hong Kong has become no secret. And British pusillanimity has been such that it has felt unable to initiate major change without first measuring the response of Peking. When earlier this year a White Paper outlined the Government’s proposals for political reform, it envisaged, in Jan Morris’s words, ‘only a token shuffle towards democracy, that seemed at once too little and too late’ – merely the accession to the Legislature of ten directly-elected Members, less than a fifth of its total number, and that not until 1991. ‘Crown Colony government would remain, it would seem, almost to the bitter end.’

Some see in this lameness the sign that Britain is now only half in control of Hong Kong, and that its authority is rapidly declining. If this is the case, it will be an ignoble conclusion to a hundred and fifty years of British rule. In the four years since the Agreement was signed, what lingering respect there was for the British has almost vanished. The people of Hong Kong have looked at Britain’s record at defending their interests, and many have found it wanting. If, in the final years, Britain fails to create in Hong Kong the institutions by which it can govern its own affairs, this will be the saddest failure of all. Sad for the people of Hong Kong, who will find themselves in 1997 vulnerable to any bitter wind that blows down from China. But sad too, in a different way, for Britain itself, who will leave behind it, no debt of gratitude, but only a deep sense of disappointment at a century and a half of wasted opportunities.

As the tenant prepares to leave, the landlord makes ready to return. With each day that passes, China’s influence in Hong Kong grows, and on the economic and political fronts alike, massive inroads have already been made. It used to be said that power in Hong Kong rested with the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, Jardine Matheson (the great Scottish trading firm), the Hong Kong Bank and the Governor, in that order. Today, that list should be expanded to include at least two other power centres: the New China News Agency, China’s unofficial embassy in Hong Kong, and the Bank of China, whose new headquarters, the sixth tallest building in the world and the highest in Asia, dominates the skyline of the Central business district.

Xu Xiatun, bespectacled, grey-haired, enigmatic, is the Director of the New China News Agency and the Chinese Communist Party’s most senior representative in Hong Kong. He might also be likened to a Shadow Governor, waiting in the wings as the clock ticks quietly towards July 1997. In the past, his organisation was discreet and low-key, spending much of its time patiently building up Communist support, or at least anti-British feeling, among the left-wing trade unions and craft guilds, monitoring the activities of pro-Taiwanese organisations and individuals, and acting as Peking’s eyes and ears. Since the signing of the Agreement, however, NCNA has come out into the open, setting up branch offices in district areas, assiduously cultivating community and political leaders (by appeals to their patriotism), and projecting a public image of sweet reasonableness. Its aim is to persuade the Hong Kong people, and through them the Taiwanese, that they have nothing to fear from mainland rule. Trust us, it says.

Is China winning this battle for hearts and minds? Naturally, as the approach to 1997 accelerates, many a Hong Kong citizen is revealed to be atavistically Chinese. As I suggested earlier, the colony has never really been detached from the mainstream of Chinese culture, nor lost its sense of unity with everything fundamentally Chinese. Morris writes that there is something ‘massively organic to the flow of events, as though Hong Kong’s return to the motherland is ordained and inevitable’, and one can certainly witness, as the deadline approaches, people quietly letting fade the veneer of Westernness – whether in their names, the language they prefer to speak, or the values they purport to hold. Morris observes that already many of Hong Kong’s richest capitalists, some of whom fled China after Mao took power in 1949, have made their peace with the Communists. Men like the archetypal Hong Kong billionaire Sir Y.K. Pao have built universities, hospitals and schools in their native provinces, where they are regarded as local heroes, and carry as much influence in Peking as they do locally. Many prominent businessmen and politicians, some of whom sport CBEs or other honours bestowed by the British, and all of whom have got fat under British rule, are discreetly discarding their pro-British attitudes and cultivating connections with their future masters.

It is natural that allegiances should change. There is nothing to be gained from currying favour with the British, and everything to be gained from wooing China – only with the sympathetic ear of the Chinese leadership can one hope to persuade it of Hong Kong’s needs. And so a whole bandwagon of high-level emissaries has been shuttling backwards and forwards between Hong Kong and the cold northern capital, arguing Hong Kong’s case and carrying Peking’s pronouncements back. But sometimes a narrower self-interest plays a part. One of the more saddening developments in the last two years has been the cynical manner in which local capitalists have united with the Chinese Communist leaders in opposing the growth of democracy in Hong Kong. For Peking, an independent, directly-elected legislature represents a challenge to its sovereignty as well as a practical obstacle to its control. The capitalists are against democracy for rather different reasons. ‘Don’t talk to me about democracy’ is a remark attributed to Ronald Li Fook Shiu, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange who has recently been arrested on corruption charges: ‘That’s a word which should be obliterated from the dictionary.’

He and other business leaders fear that the give-and-take of adversarial politics could drive money away; they fear even more that democracy can only strengthen the hand of the lower orders: the teachers, the social workers, the labour unions – those who urge a more equal distribution of Hong Kong’s wealth and of me power that only money can buy. And thus, almost inconceivably, the capitalists and the Communists have forged an unholy alliance against the rest in their determination to wield power in Hong Kong.

At least nobody is fooled. The public harbour no illusions either about the self-interest of the businessmen, many of whom are expected to be safely abroad in ten years’ time, or about the way in which China intends to run Hong Kong after 1997. In the last few months Peking has tried hard to show that it is listening to community opinion. It is consulting the public widely on the content of the Basic Law, me mini-constitution for Hong Kong after 1997 which is being drafted at this moment. It is investing heavily in the colony’s economy and infrastructure as a pledge of good will. It is co-operating with the British and Hong Kong Governments as never before on a host of issues which must be resolved before the changeover. But what it cannot do is convince Hong Kong people of its sincerity. They have lived through too many interesting times, have grown wary of Communists bearing gifts. At first or second hand, they have experienced the displacements and violence of the Communist revolution; they have seen the hundreds of mutilated bodies floating down the Pearl River to spill into Hong Kong’s harbour during the era of the Red Guards. The bloody suppression of protests in Tibet has suggested to them what China means by its promises of autonomy, while just across the border, the sporadic public execution of criminals (usually by a bullet in the back of the head, and very often after only the most cursory trial) is a frequent reminder of mainland Chinese concepts of justice and punishment.

The guarded optimism of 1984, the year of the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s future, has now all but disappeared, and the depressing memories of earlier times, the pessimistic prognoses for the future, are flooding back. It is unlikely that Hong Kong will learn to trust China before 1997 and when and if it does, with these tens of thousands of departures, it may be too late. One Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago I was out on a boat trip with a group of English and Hong Kong Chinese friends, among them a television and radio producer. As our boat nosed past the headland of a small island, there drifted across our path a silent boatload of Vietnamese refugees, ragged, emaciated, sullen, their home-made boat battered and leaking. As I stood there pondering the desperation that must have caused them to set out to sea, a prey to storms and pirates, my producer friend commented: ‘That will be us in ten years’ time. Yet where will we go to?’

Jan Morris has written an eloquent and at times moving account of the colony’s history and me problems it faces as it prepares for an uncertain future. Her account, that of a historian of empire who is also a travel writer, combines chapters on the history of Hong Kong with impressionistic insights into the present situation. Her predictions about the future of Hong Kong read as a verdict on the achievement of Pax Britannica as a whole. For Jan Morris, the sad thing about Hong Kong is that only now, as it nears 1997, has it come of age. She notes that, for the first time in its history, more than half the citizens of Hong Kong have been born in Hong Kong, rather than arriving as refugees, and she believes that Hong Kong has in the last ten years or so become a truly civilised and humane community, a community in the round, a city-state in virtually every sense. How saddening, then, just as Hong Kong was reaching its fulfilment, for Deng Xiaoping and Mrs Thatcher to have signed away its future.