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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

HONG KONG: Back to the Motherland, 1997
A Wayward Colony Returns to Its Roots

John Stanmeyer/Saba
A Hong Kong clothing store billboard shows the 1984 agreement between Thatcher and Deng to return the colony to the mainland.

One of the more astonishing consequences of the triumph of Chinese communism was the abrupt rise of Hong Kong to become the liveliest, richest and most ironic of Chinese cities. It was rich and lively because of the circumstances of the day; it was ironic because, technically, it was not a Chinese city at all, but a far-flung outpost of the dying British Empire.

Seized by the British in 1841, Hong Kong survived to be almost the last of the foreign settlements that were, in the course of the 19th century, implanted on the shores of China by the European powers. One by one they had returned to Chinese sovereignty, until, by the time the People's Republic came into being, there remained only the petty Portuguese colony of Macau and this elderly and fairly hangdog British seaport, the easternmost and by no means most exciting of crown colonies. Most of it--which meant in effect all of it--was due by treaty to be handed back to China in 1997.

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Irony once more decreed that the victory of communism in China meant a boom for capitalism in this anachronistic enclave. Many a brilliant Chinese manufacturer and entrepreneur fled the Shanghai of thought reform and the State Planning Commission for the Hong Kong of stock exchanges and laissez-faire economics. Often they brought their equipment and even their work forces along, and the British welcomed them. Hong Kong was transformed from a colonial possession of the second rank into a major manufacturing center and free port--an improbable gateway into Mao's dogmatic China.

How anomalous it stood, in those years, on the edge of the vast, mysterious and forbidding People's Republic. The world flocked to marvel at its extraordinary blend of East and West--Chinese judges in the wigs and buckled shoes of the English Common Law, British civil servants in the seats of Mandarins! The Governor of Hong Kong represented the sovereign authority of the Queen of England, yet everyone knew that by the merest flick of policy, even by the turn of a water-cock, Beijing could take over the place whenever it liked. The crown colony was a capitalist, free-enterprise, essentially apolitical colony of less than 1,036 sq km, with a population, in 1970, of about 4 million. The People's Republic was ideologically just the opposite, and in its 9.6 million sq km lived a billion people.

Yet for several decades Hong Kong prospered mightily. The goods it made swept the world, the ships it serviced lay in their thousands in its harbor, its skyscrapers filled the horizons and its name became synonymous everywhere with vivacity, wealth, greed and success.

And with Britishness. Almost all the inhabitants of Hong Kong were Chinese, and it was largely Chinese enterprise and ingenuity that had raised the colony to this marvelously mercenary climax. British administration and method, though, had stage-managed the drama. British capitalism, then dormant in its homeland, flourished in Hong Kong and attracted money and speculators from many other countries too--all eager, like the British themselves, to exploit the gigantic Chinese markets so tantalizingly close. Hong Kong's was one of the least regulated economies anywhere, and the bold, the clever and the shady rushed to take advantage of it.

Suddenly in 1984, Hong Kong became a finite phenomenon. Through many fluctuations of Anglo-Chinese relations, the Chinese had kept their hands off the place. They realized its advantages to themselves, as an advanced Western-style mechanism more or less at their beck and call. And they knew they had only to wait: it would be theirs before the end of the century anyway, when the treaty of concession expired. The British recognized this inescapable dénouement too, and in 1984 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed an agreement in Beijing formally arranging Hong Kong's return in toto to the People's Republic in 1997.

Almost everything about Hong Kong is ambiguous, and ambiguity ruled the colony in the last years of its existence. On the one hand the diplomats labored, month after month, to work out the details of the handover. The British were anxious to preserve public and monetary freedoms for Hong Kong, without antagonizing Beijing; the Chinese, meanwhile, were trying to bind the future Hong Kong as closely as possible to their own system, without outraging the world's democracies. On the other hand life in the city proceeded more or less regardless. There were periodic scares about the despotism so soon to take over, especially after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, but in general the money-mad city continued headlong on its course.

In the last years of the regime, ostentatious buildings sprang up at a fevered pace, huge swaths of land were reclaimed from the sea, new towns were founded in the countryside and a stupendous airport was built on an outlying island, connected to the city by the longest road-rail suspension bridge in the world. If the confidence of the market faltered sometimes, it never failed. Incidental, almost irrelevant, seemed the coming and going of the negotiators, from Beijing and from London, hammering out the future shape of the semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region.

Gradually, though, almost imperceptibly, Hong Kong was already returning to its roots. It had been a classic British trading colony in its time; it had become exhilaratingly cosmopolitan in recent years; now it became subtly more Chinese with each passing month. Chinese administrators took over from British. Chinese tastes and manners became fashionable: the elegantly oriental China Club superseded the extremely British Hong Kong Club as the smart one to belong to. More and more capital moved over the Chinese border into the Special Economic Zones that represented China's own move toward a capitalist system.

So when the time came for the transition at midnight on July 1, 1997, 156 years after the foundation of British Hong Kong, the event seemed less than cataclysmic after all. Ethnically 98% Chinese anyway, Hong Kong had become accustomed to dominant Chineseness. Most Britons had lost whatever rancor they felt about the end of the imperial role; most Chinese took the event as it came--hardly more than a footnote to their 4,000 years of history. The usual speeches were made, the customary fireworks flared in the night sky, the Queen of England's private yacht took His Excellency the last British Governor away to sea and home. Next morning the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong awoke to the command of a Chinese Chief Executive representing the sovereignty of the People's Republic.

It was over. The great anomaly was done, the irony was completed and Hong Kong was just another Chinese seaport after all: richer than most, but perhaps not for long. It was nominally autonomous, but probably only for the time being; and soon to put out of its mind, I do not doubt, the exuberant glories, astonishments and quandaries of its alienated past.

Jan Morris' books about the British Empire include Hong Kong

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