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30 June 1997

Handing back Hong Kong

As Prince Charles' speech signalled the end of another era in Britain's colonial past, he issued a stern reminder to the Chinese authorities about their commitments to Hong Kong. However, as Sheila Parker outlines, the people of Hong Kong are greeting the arrival of their new masters with either indifference and optimism - and not the fear represented in the British media

The final days of British rule over Hong Kong were filled with wrangles about the timing of troop movements, attendance (or otherwise) at official engagements and the alleged threats to freedom of speech and assembly. What we were actually witnessing was a game of cat and mouse. As the British flag was replaced by the Chinese one and the old Hong Kong flag by the new one, it became obvious that all the pomp and ceremony disguised an attitude of business as usual. The 4,000 troops the Chinese moved in represented less than half the original British garrison that was withdrawn. And the timid bleatings that made up the opposition by Robin Cook, Labour's Foreign Secretary, reveal how much the balance of forces have swung from the old imperial order to the new power.

Hong Kong is in fact gripped by a carnival mood and a recent survey in the Far Eastern Economic Review revealed that 62 per cent of Hong Kong people would vote for China if given a choice about the future - which the British denied them. The British media has been full of stories that Hong Kong will be turned into a police state under Beijing rule - something few, apart from Hong Kong's dissidents - appear to be worried about.

Hong Kong serves as an embarrassing reminder of Britain's colonial record, and its racial degradation of the Chinese in the last century. Many within the British establishment will be grateful that they can now absolve themselves of past sins. At the same time, there is a sense of loss and nostalgia about Britain's imperial past. We have witnessed a stark reminder that Britain is not what it used to be and never will be again. In fact, a Foreign Office official working in the British administration in Hong Kong had to admit to me that they could do nothing should China choose not to honour the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984. Britain has lost its grip, and is having a hard time coming to terms with it - made harder still by the obvious relish with which the Chinese regime has humbled its old masters at every turn.

Having lost their political power in Asia, the British authorities are attempting to reassert their moral authority over the East. The message is that we are still one of the few civilised and democratic nations on Earth, while the Chinese barbarians remain a 'yellow peril' that will destroy liberty and freedom in Hong Kong. Whatever happens in the future, 'It wasn't our fault' will be the cry from Whitehall, where the different factions are already trying to pin the blame on somebody else and wash their hands of responsibility for anything.

To listen to some of them talk, you would think that Britain had run Hong Kong as a model citizens' republic. In fact Hong Kong has been run under direct British rule as a Crown colony-and often run with a rod of iron. It was the place where the British authorities first introduced baton rounds to control public protests, and where thousands of Vietnamese boat people who fled to Hong Kong in search of Western-style freedom have spent years under armed guard, caged in camps, awaiting deportation.

Britain only began liberalising its regime in Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover, as a cynical exercise in displaying the superiority of the British system. Governor Patten's reforms introduced the first direct elections to a Legislative Council (Legco) in September 1995. Although this has been heralded as democratic reform, the Legco is not the ruling body. Hong Kong has been run by the Executive Council (Exco) headed by the Governor. All members of the Exco are appointed, not elected. Any future problems due to the lack of democracy, which will undoubtedly be blamed on the Chinese, will in fact be the legacy of British rule.

Hong Kong has in practice been part of China for years. Hong Kong's population is 98 per cent Chinese. Business links are also well established; Hong Kong capitalists did much to create the conditions in which a market economy could mushroom in the neighbouring Chinese province of Guangdong. As early as 1993, 80 per cent of local manufacturing firms in Hong Kong had transferred some or all of their production to mainland China; about 60 000 Hong Kong people were managing factories or other investments in China, while as many as four million workers in southern China were directly or indirectly employed by Hong Kong firms. In the other direction, China has been a net lender to Hong Kong since 1982. Hong Kong and China are already joined at the hip.

The view from Hong Kong itself of the handback has largely been squeezed out of the public debate in Britain. The only opinions heard from Hong Kong are those of dissidents who have every reason to fear Chinese rule, or the minority of stateless individuals who by now should have been issued with British passports. The voices of the majority of ordinary Hong Kong working people have not been reported. Among them there is a widespread mood of indifference-'A new government? So what? Life is hard and will carry on being hard'. But at the same time there is an air of optimism about the return to their increasingly powerful Chinese homeland. The British press may not like to report it, but the fact is that the majority of Hong Kong people do not like the British. They see them as arrogant, elitist foreigners. They may not be warmly embracing the Beijing bureaucracy, but they certainly will not shed a tear when the British finally leave.

The newly emerging elites in the East are every bit as authoritarian minded as their Western predecessors. They might not use the same racially-loaded language when they talk about the Chinese masses, but their message is similar. Providing for the natives, rather than giving them any say in running their own affairs, is an approach which unites Western governments and corporations with Hong Kong officials and every ruling bureaucrat in China. All the panics about the unfree future of Hong Kong are no more than British bombast, empty attempts to cover up the fact that Britain's anti-democratic record in Hong Kong, is, if anything, something the Chinese government would love to emulate. Hong Kong is probably the best example of how the market has thrived in the East, not in spite of, but because of the absence of liberal democracy.

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