Sunday, July 08, 2007

Just Another Chinese City?

Hong Kong has never been fully democratic, but it had, under the British, always been free. How well have those freedoms been preserved under the Chinese flag? I like to think in terms of canaries in a coal-mine – certain activities that are freely practiced in Hong Kong that can get you arrested in Beijing.

One of these canaries is the annual June 4 memorial to the people killed in Beijing on that fateful night in 1989. Though it is now nearly 20 years since Tiananmen, democracy advocates still fill Victoria Park for the annual candlelight vigil (strangely, the number of Chinese tourists in Hong Kong always seems to drop off about then).

Another canary in the coal-mine is tolerance for the Falungong. This quasi Buddhist organization is banned and actively suppressed in China as an “evil cult”. For a long time a silent protest was held outside the headquarters of China’s Xinhua News Service until the building was torn down and the protestors moved to another location.

There is another canary that does seem in danger of expiring. That is the government-owned broadcast station Radio Television Hong Kong. Ever since the handover Beijing’s friends in the territory have sniped at RTHK, complaining about slanted coverage. Commentators have been called “traitors” and even threatened with harm.

Most of this harassment comes from “pro-Beijing” elements in Hong Kong rather than from China proper (at least not openly). These people have only a limited commitment to freedom of expression to begin with, and they find it even harder to wrap their minds around the idea that there can be a government-funded broadcast outlet that permits criticism of itself.

Hong Kong was extremely lucky in the timing of the handover. One can only imagine how Hong Kong would have fared had the handover taken place in 1957 at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine. Or, if it had taken place in 1967 at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Or even in 1987 when the trauma of Tiananmen was still two years into the future instead of a fading eight years in the past.

Instead, the first years of Chinese rule have coincided with the most prosperous and perhaps least oppressive period of China’s long history. Polls have consistently shown that Hong Kong people hold China’s leaders in higher regard than their own. A particular favorite was the pragmatic former premier Zhu Rongji.

Hong Kong University last month conducted an interesting survey. For the first time since the handover, it found that more students thought of themselves as Chinese rather than “Hong Kongers”. They have developed a different frame of reference from their parents.

Their grandfathers remember a China that confiscated their property and forced them into exile in Hong Kong. Their fathers remember a China torn apart by the Cultural Revolution. But for today’s youth China is a place of unprecedented prosperity, a country that can put an astronaut in space, that is hosting the Olympic Games, in short a place they might like to be a part of.

Indeed, all of Hong Kong’s people have had to readjust their attitudes to their “compatriots” on the mainland, whom they used to look down on as peasants. That’s especially true as thousands of well-heeled Chinese tourists descend on Hong Kong’s shopping districts, flashing their yuan (which since last November is actually stronger than the Hong Kong dollar).

There are those who lament that by joining the mainland, Hong Kong sacrificed the special cache and allure it had enjoyed as a British colony and become “just another Chinese city” - the ultimate putdown.

Yet, Hong Kong still retains many outward signs of its former Britishness. Hong Kong never indulged in the post-colonial vandalism that seized other outposts of empire on independence, destroying all reminders of the British and renaming everything in sight.

The streets still bear the names of colonial governors. The statue of Queen Victoria still sits in the park named after her. It took the PLA five years to get around to scraping the words “Prince of Wales Building” off their headquarters. The British war memorial, minus British service flags, still occupies its prime location in Central. The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens flourishes.

That’s not to say that Hong Kong people are particularly nostalgic about the left over artifacts of the colonial period. If they get in the way of progress, they can be very unsentimental. Recently, they demolished Queen’s Pier, where arriving British governors used to alight. But this was part of a redevelopment project that has also seen the Hong Kong Island terminal of the famous Star Ferry relocated.

And what does it mean to be “just another Chinese city” anyway? Compared with Shanghai? Beijing? Have any of the detractors been to these cities lately? All are undergoing furious urban redevelopment guided, in places, by the world’s most famous architects. In contrast Hong Kong’s skyline has barely changed in the past ten years. (But then it is a great skyline.)

Rather than fretting about being “just another Chinese City” Hong Kong people worry constantly about being overtaken by other Chinese cities, especially Shanghai. To my mind, these worries are overdrawn. China is big enough to host two, three, four world- class cities.

Presently Hong Kong sits at the gateway to the biggest conglomeration of factories in the history of the world. Add to these the enduring legacies from the British such as its excellent civil service and rule of law. With assets like these and how can Hong Kong miss?


Post a Comment

<< Home