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.