Why China Leaves Hong Kong As It Is

On July 1st 1997, hundreds of millions of Chinese people huddled around TV sets up and down the land to watch the long anticipated return of Hong Kong to the fold. It was also a historic occasion for the UK, marking the formal end of the British Empire, the final glittering jewel prised from the crown; and like so many other colonies, taken without a fight (although it made less of an impression on the English, being firmly wedged between Labour’s landslide victory and the overhyped death of Princess Diana). The countless Chinese cheered as the countdown clock in Beijing approached zero, whilst Princes Charles’ ears flopped in the realization that when he becomes Charles III, his realm will be no bigger than that of Charles I. The Queen did not make it to the handover ceremony. I suspect she felt too tired and emotional to attend, noting that her reign is likely to be remembered as the Age of a more base metal than that of Elizabeth I’s Gold.

Hong Kong had formally belonged to Britain for over 150 years, like Singapore to the south, a gilttering outpost in Britain’s trade Empire. Before British rule, Hong Kong and the surrounding territories had been a dusty backwater for thousands of years, only briefly rising to prominence as the final hiding place of the last Song Dynasty Emperor, or something similar.

Up and down China, and especially in and around Beijing, are plaques and reminders of things stolen or broken by the British, sometimes with French assistance, who repeatedly drove their jackboot in to the face of the suffering Chinese nation. The more intellectual sorts can only conclude that if it had not been for British aggression, China would long ago have assumed its rightful position as one of the Great Powers in the world. When living in a rather military town in the middle of China, I’ve been attacked on more than one occaision by drunken Chinese wishing to have their moment of glory against a symbol of former foreign oppression. Hong Kong is, and always was, rightfully theirs they told me as they spat in my face.

The vitality of a people waxes and wanes, Hong Kong was secured at the apogee of British power, a distant island in a foreign continent far away from London; and during the decline of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, a time when its armies, riven with corruption, had become increasingly ineffective at countering not only the new ill-understood foreign threat, but also the various rebellions that periodically convulsed the corpulent Empire.

The modern Chinese people, highly nationalistic, but with a suprisingly small historical hinterland, are proud of their country’s growing strength and confidence in the international arena. A visit to any Chinese language forum will reveal shockingly jingoistic attitudes, which can also be found in a watered down form on the economist.com’s China threads. The return of Hong Kong is seen as a defining point in the rise of China, a glorious achievement by the ruling Party. This victory also likely went some way towards smudging memories of that Party’s behaviour during the hot summer of 1989. But, if the British had never developed Hong Kong, and had just designated it “the best picnic spot in Asia“, would the Chinese have been so ecstatically happy at its return, plus possession of some picnic tables, checkered blankets, empty ginger ale bottles and mouldy sandwich crusts?

Whether they admit it or not, the joy at the “return” of Hong Kong to PRC control was much more to do with what Hong Kong had become, than any spiritual nationalistic significance that the ground in to which the skyscrapers foundations are secured imbues.

The hardship of the twenty years from 1957 to 1977, some of the worst in China’s history, combined with the very real fear of losing power, caused the Communist Party to look long and hard at Hong Kong’s success and the reasons underpinning it. The new policy of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is of course nothing but free market capitalism in a cronyist authoritarian state.

China has learnt from the British Empire’s success, and is deregulating and devolving power to regions, with a lighter hand on the economy. The Hong Kong miracle has infected a land thousands of times bigger and more populous than itself. Conversely Britain, having buried its Imperial past in shame, seems to be moving just as fast in the opposite direction.

China profited handsomely from Hong Kong’s return. Although it is claimed that the UK fought hard to secure the one country, two systems method of government for Hong Kong, it is evident that China profits just as much, if not hugely more, from such a deal. Hong Kong, seperated from the mainland by border checks, travel restrictions and barbed wire, gives them access to a very different political, economic and cultural laboratory to the one that they have created in China proper.

Of course, we’ve been here before. Several hundred years ago, England was a serious contender on the continent. Calais, secured by treaty in 1360, but under English control before then, was the jewel in the crown of the time; contributing significantly to English coffers, and the Pale of Calais, as the region was known, sent representatives to Parliament. That arrangement lasted for 200 years, long after all other English possessions in the rest of what is now France were lost. Geography, however, exerts huge influence in the fate of nations. Seperated from England by thirty miles of water, and within shooting range of a resurgent France, eventually one third of the heavily fortified Calais’ finances were diverted towards defence. Like Hong Kong in the sixties, whose water supply was dependent on the whim of jealous giant next door, once military power could no longer secure the colonies defences, the countdown clock had started ticking. And, as Calais destiny as an English entrepôt was ended the moment Henry VIII realized his coffers were empty, so Hong Kong’s fate was sealed the moment Britain went cap in hand to the IMF.


11 thoughts on “Why China Leaves Hong Kong As It Is

  1. Excellent post L.

    Apart from being spat at by the indigenous I wish I was back there…bit of gob in the face every now and then is nowt compared to the lies and rot of socialism!!

  2. BTW…The building to the right of the IFC (tallest in photo…and HK) is Jardine house. The old man worked the year 1979 in Hong Kong in Jardine (or the then Connaught centre) and was at the time by far the largest construction on the island!

    And just what the bloody ‘ells happened to my ‘nuke’ avatar? It seems to have gone all green again and there is no bloody way I’m putting up with that.

  3. “The hardship of the twenty years from 1957 to 1977”
    That’s interesting. No doubt there were many factors causing that hardship but it just happens to coincide fairly well with the previous manifestation of the current (since1999) phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The current phase is expected to persist until around 2030.

  4. //The new policy of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is of course nothing but free market capitalism in a cronyist authoritarian state.//

    One can only wonder what these ‘Chinese characteristics’ actually are. In the last few days China has single-handedly destroyed Australia’s multi-billion dollar rock lobster fishery. Is this a salvo across our bows in their ‘smokeless economic war’?

    They have just refused to buy our product. No official ban, simply a universal unwillingness to purchase. Without a ‘ban’ no explanations are necessary, simply silence as lobsters from New Zealand and South Africa are still being accepted. Overnight, prices plunged to a third of their value.

    We can only wonder what trade-off is in the wind, what sort of quid pro quo will be sought.

    We know that Chinese pressure has been heeded by the WTO as Australia has just been ordered to drop the quarantine provisions for imports of apples and pears that has preserved our unique disease-free status. Fruit from China and New Zealand is stricken with fire-blight disease but the WTO has demanded these imports be accepted. Our pathetic politicians and bureaucrats have acquiesced, saying that their hands are tied by treaty obligations.

    What others sorts of trade-offs will China demand to restore one of our most valuable fisheries?

  5. FB: Hey what would I know? The CSIRO and the MSM have been telling Tasmanians for 25 years that NZ suffers from fire-blight. I DO know that orchardists in the Huon Valley (I lived there surrounded by them for 15 years) have been selling disease-free tree stock to NZ and still are.

    But since it’s the MSM and CSIRO telling us that, based on their track record for Carbon Dioxide Tax Fraud, then I guess I know from nothin’. Just wondering why NZ farmers would being spending a fortune buying our trees if they never had such a problem.

    Thing is, if you’re now growing Tasmanian apples, why on earth would we be wanting to buy them back from you when we are growing perfect crops of our own? Re the rock lobsters, NZ has a free-trade agreement with China and we don’t – I guess that explains it.

    • Well it could be that your apple growers are sheltering behind a non-tariff barrier, and the N.Z. apples could complement your existing supplies. Hell, there could even be cooperation so that Australasian apple consumers got the best of both worlds. But I do wonder about the future of horticulture in the Murray basin. N.Z is irreducibly pluvial.

      • The apple grower lobby has received transfer payments from consumers and taxpayers worth the equivalent of $A2 billion over a six year period to 2008.
        This figure was calculated by two academics at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Economics and Government in a report commissioned by Pipfruit N.Z.
        They found that the combination of high prices and low consumption of apples amounted to protection worth about $A250-300 million per year, a sum that far outweighed either the value of the industry or the costs of controlling any disease. (> 3 &<10 $ million annually). The total trade is estimated to amount to no more than $30 million annually.
        Apples of course are not the only protection racket. Bananas, the world's most traded fruit, cannot be imported into Australia, even when cyclones knock out production for a couple of years.
        Perhaps it is not all as it seems to be .

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