Hong Kong Handover | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Hong Kong Handover

For once, even the glittering neon splendor of Hong Kong's Nathan Road shopping mecca will be eclipsed.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 1, 1997

Hong Kong Handover

For once, even the glittering neon splendor of Hong Kong's Nathan Road shopping mecca will be eclipsed. For a full hour on the evening of July 1, the sky overhead will erupt in cloudbursts of red and gold and silver as nearly $20 million worth of fireworks go off to celebrate the territory's return to Chinese sovereignty. More than a million spectators, nearly one-sixth of Hong Kong's population, are expected to witness the display. But Wong Siu-chui probably will not be among them. Instead, the petite 21-year-old sales clerk, whose English name is California, expects to be at her customary post in a trendy clothing store half a dozen blocks from the best vantage points along the Victoria Harbor waterfront. To her, there is little to celebrate. "I'm not too excited," she says. If anything, Wong admits to apprehension about what life will be like after the last Roman candle fizzles out. "China," she observes in a rare serious moment, "has a lot of rules and restrictions, especially regarding speech."

Whatever the official hoopla suggests, Wong's underwhelmed view is widely shared in Hong Kong. Even as officials put the finishing touches on preparations for a week of celebrations marking the end of Hong Kong's century and a half as a British colony and its post-July 1 status as a Special Administrative Region of China, many ordinary residents feel at best neutral about the impending handover. Others voice deep ambivalence, as fears for their freedom undercut economic optimism and a visceral satisfaction at Britain's departure and their reunion with their ancestral homeland.

Contradictions, in fact, are apparent everywhere a visitor turns in Hong Kong in the final few days before the historic moment. As many as 8,000 representatives of the international media are expected to arrive in time for handover ceremonies that begin before midnight on June 30 - rivalling the attention given to such mega-stories as the Olympic Games. Yet both Hong Kong's outgoing British administration and its incoming Chinese one are at pains to portray the transition as the closest thing possible to an economic and civil non-event.

In an interview published last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen underscored Beijing's promise that "Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged." The soaring Hong Kong stock market reflects widespread confidence among investors that Chinese sovereignty will only enhance the territory's ever-rising prosperity (its per capita income surpassed Canada's several years ago, and it ranks a creditable 22 on the United Nation's index of overall human development, which Canada leads). Still, both on the street and in opinion polls, Hong Kong residents concede that subtle but unwelcome changes have already begun. "Before, we liked to speak loudly," says 24-year-old Matthew Leung Chi-yuen, a commerce student at Montreal's Concordia University back home in Hong Kong for the summer. "After the handover, I think you will have to beware of your speech."

No such doubts will be permitted during the concentrated public and private partying, bracketed by displays of pyrotechnics, that will preoccupy Hong Kong's elite next week. The beginning of the end of British rule takes place in mid-afternoon on June 30. That is when the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, will leave his official residence for the last time. Two hours later, a ceremony at a military enclave on the Hong Kong waterfront will mark the end of 156 years of British administration. Next, as the sun finally sets on the last major outpost of the empire, fireworks sponsored by Britain will light up the harbor named for the imperial queen who had reigned just three years when England's warships first grabbed the colony.

With half an hour left in the day, Victoria's considerably less imperial descendant, Prince Charles, will stand before Chinese President Jiang Zemin - making his first visit to the territory - and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to deliver a short farewell speech in the great hall of the new Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Then, as the final few seconds to midnight tick away and dozens of foreign dignitaries, including Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, look on, the Union flag of Britain will be pulled down for the last time. Moments later, the red banner of the People's Republic of China will rise over Hong Kong, alongside the new flag of the Special Administrative Region, a white bauhinia flower on a red background. By 12:15 a.m. on July 1, Charles, Patten and a few other senior officials will board the royal yacht Britannia and steam away into the night.

Ninety minutes later, Jiang and other leaders of Beijing's ruling Communist party will formally inaugurate the first government of the Hong Kong SAR. Additional ceremonies marking the installation of the new administration are scheduled for later in the day - followed after dark by yet more fireworks in a display pointedly planned to run at least twice as long as those set off by the departing British. A glittering round of civic, diplomatic, private and public receptions will carry on throughout the next two days of official holiday. Jiang and the other Chinese leaders, meanwhile, will return to Beijing to host parallel celebrations.

The spin to be expected from Beijing and its incoming Hong Kong administration is already clear. In a speech last month to an audience of Hong Kong's elite, the man who will replace Patten at the head of the territory's government, chief executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa, declared that on July 1, "Hong Kong will be reunited with its Chinese motherland." When that happens, added the multimillionaire shipping tycoon, "we, the people of Hong Kong, are finally going to be the masters of our own destiny."

But the truth of that claim has still to be demonstrated. Other events in the early hours of July 1 are expected to underscore widespread doubts about how much autonomy Hong Kong's 6.5-million people will really enjoy. Both Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will slip out of the futuristic waterfront exhibition hall before the Beijing-appointed SAR legislature, which replaces one elected under British auspices in 1995, is sworn in. Meanwhile, half a mile and several hundred police will separate the Beijing visitors - among them Li Peng, the mastermind of the bloody 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square - from a rally of Hong Kong democrats protesting against the incoming legislature. At about the same time as it is being sworn in, leading members of the legislature it is supplanting will try to enter the chamber itself to denounce the new body. "We do not consider them legitimate at all," declares Martin Lee, the dapper British-trained lawyer whose Democratic party holds the largest number of seats in the doomed elected version.

Elsewhere in the territory, midnight will be greeted with emotions that fall somewhere in the ambiguous middle between Lee's gloom and Tung's boosterism. "I will really be a Chinese now," says Danny Tsui Wai-hang, 19, a history student at Hong Kong University. "I can get a PRC passport instead of a British passport. It was embarrassing to have a British passport." On the other hand, Tsui says his instructors have already suggested that in future he should avoid writing essays on "sensitive" topics - such as comparing Russia's democratic reforms with China's hard line on political change.

Chatting across the counter of the Kowloon pharmacy where he works, 48-year-old Dennis Tsang Sik-woon describes Hong Kong's return to China enthusiastically, as a "mother and child reunion." But he echoes Tsui's worry. "Even under the British we could express our opinions," Tsang says. "Now, you've got a question mark in your mind."

Among the minority of 300,000 Hong Kongers who are not ethnically Chinese, feelings are similarly mixed - although sometimes for other reasons. Eighty years after he was born in the colony to British parents, retired shipping manager Arthur Gomes admits to "bittersweet memories about Hong Kong as it used to be." Still, he has plans to remain in the new SAR rather than take advantage of his British citizenship to move to the United Kingdom. "It hasn't got the pulse of Hong Kong," he says. Besides, he is optimistic about the territory's future, politically as well as economically. "The Japanese couldn't change Hong Kong," says the former Second World War machine-gunner, who spent three years in a prisoner of war camp on Hong Kong Island. "I don't think anybody else will. It will carry on, and in time it will improve."

Although her heritage is Indian, 19-year-old Pinky Sharma, a Hong Kong University arts student, speaks Cantonese and writes Chinese characters. She feels that Hong Kong "is my place." After next week, Sharma concedes, "there might be some restriction of the liberal space." Even so, she says, "I'm optimistic."

So is Canadian-born Bob Bentley, a senior inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police and one of 545 non-Chinese senior officers in the 27,000-strong force. "I like it here," says Bentley, who left his home in Acton, Ont., and a production-line job with a carmaker, to move to the territory at age 24 in 1973. After nearly a quarter of a century in Hong Kong, the genial policeman has acquired a slight British accent and a strong attachment to British tradition. He admits to some regret that after next week the word "Royal" will vanish from the force's name. "I feel quite proud of serving Her Majesty for this many years," he muses over a glass of beer in one of the less pretentious watering holes in the Wan Chai bar district. "It's sort of hit me that when I go back to work on July 3, it won't be the Union flag flying in front of the building any more. It will be the red one." Still, Bentley has no plan to follow the path of many of his fellow expatriate officers who have left the force rather than work under Chinese rule. "I feel more of a Hong Kong connection than a Canadian one," he says. "I don't think it's going to change."

But if Hong Kong residents' views on the future are mixed, they are far from randomly held. According to polling by researchers at the Hong Kong Transition Project - a continuing study of attitudes towards the handover begun in 1987 and sponsored by several universities - women and young people express the most worry about life after July 1. Older males, especially well-off men born in China and now successful in business, are most enthusiastic about the future. That finding, says project director Michael DeGolyer, should sound a warning to the 60-year-old, Shanghai-born Tung and his circle of advisers - most of them older businessmen born in China. "They have views that are very, very different from most of the rest of the people in Hong Kong society," says DeGolyer.

Another of DeGolyer's findings suggests that Beijing's appointed legislature has a long way to go in winning Hong Kongers' trust. Nearly half of those surveyed in early June said the outgoing elected body would better protect their interests, while barely seven per cent backed Beijing's group. That council, concludes DeGolyer, "simply has not gained legitimacy among Hong Kong people."

But with just days to go before they take over, there is little sign that Beijing's appointees are greatly worried by their low public esteem. Despite overwhelming evidence that Hong Kongers are concerned about erosion of their freedoms, the incoming administration's first official act will be to ratify more than a dozen measures aimed at curbing political dissent. Calling itself the Provisional Legislative Council, the appointed body passed the measures during a series of Saturday morning meetings held during the last several months in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. The new laws will allow police to ban public demonstrations that are considered a threat to "national security," which could include protests like this year's emotional outpouring on June 4 commemorating those who died at Tiananmen. The changes also outlaw advocacy of independence for Taiwan or Tibet, forbid local political groups from receiving support from abroad, and require societies to register with the government - which could then ban those it considered subversive. But the status of those measures - and of the provisional legislature itself, which Britain has not recognized - has been in doubt ahead of the handover. So in an extraordinary session to be held in the middle of the night, within minutes of being sworn in on July 1, the appointed council will pass an omnibus bill designed to give legal force to the new restrictions.

In fact, they may hardly be necessary. In a trend that deeply worries Lee and other democrats, there is widespread evidence that Hong Kongers have already begun to limit their criticism of China's rulers. The signs are particularly clear in the media. In a survey of 553 local reporters last year, more than half agreed that "most journalists hesitate to criticize the Chinese government." Those who do not mute their criticism often face reprisals - ranging from having their stories buried deep in the back pages of newspapers to outright firings.

Self-censorship has reached into academe as well. Last week, the Transition Project's DeGolyer admitted that his group had considered asking Hong Kongers about their views on the future of Taiwan - but opted not to. The reason, he said, was that the project publishes its findings on the Internet. After July 1, explained the American-born academic, "we did not want to have on our Web site data that arguably could be advocating independence for Taiwan and get us shut down. It simply was not worth it."

Such fears are not unreasonable. Foreign Minister Qian's conciliatory interview aside, China's leaders have sent numerous signals in recent weeks that they are in no mood to relax their firm control over what their citizens can read, hear or watch on television. Chinese reporters covering the Hong Kong handover are under central government orders to ignore any demonstrations, such as the one planned by Lee's Democrats. Communist cadres in China have been instructed to step up surveillance of dissidents, and in Beijing municipal officials last week issued an order banning the public from Tiananmen Square on July 1. The celebrations will be by invitation only.

Hong Kongers have other worries about the reunion. The most persistent is that China's endemic favoritism and corruption will increasingly infect business in Hong Kong - most likely via the more than 1,800 enterprises that various Chinese entities own and operate in the territory. Ranging from the small and obscure to such industrial giants as the Bank of China and the huge China International Trade and Investment Corp. conglomerate, mainland-owned enterprises in Hong Kong control an estimated $220 billion in assets.

So far, evidence is slight that their mainland shareholders - ranging from municipal and provincial governments to the People's Liberation Army - have tried to use their political influence to benefit their Hong Kong operations. But apprehension remains. For good reason, says Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a former senior reporter for the Communist-owned Wen Wei Po newspaper, who was fired after he accurately reported the scale of Beijing's Tiananmen clampdown. Still well-connected on the mainland, Lau notes: "Some officials think there is an opportunity, and even an obligation, to protect Chinese investments in Hong Kong, just as the British government protected British investments." Even more alarmingly, adds Lau, now a columnist for several other Hong Kong papers, "some of them think this is the time to take revenge."

An indication that Hong Kong's new masters may indeed be willing to use their clout to extract special consideration emerged last week from an especially disquieting quarter. The English-language South China Morning Post reported that the commander of an advance guard of the 10,000 PLA troops that will eventually be garrisoned in the territory, Maj.-Gen. Zhou Borong, had criticized a Hong Kong customs official for insisting that he produce a permit for access to a closed border zone near China. Zhou reportedly demanded that the officer show more respect for the PLA. James To Kun-sun, one of the legislators who will be replaced by a Beijing appointee next week, protested: "They think they should get special treatment. That is what Hong Kong people are worried about." In his last appearance at the legislature, Patten maintained that it was an "isolated incident."

But to other critics of China's heavy-handedness, fear itself may be Hong Kongers' greatest enemy. Lau says that for all the mainland's corruption and repression, he remains optimistic about the future - both for Hong Kong and its motherland. "China is very undeveloped, but China is developing," he says. Increasingly, he adds, its leadership "is trying to adapt to the international world." Lau predicts that Beijing will step in to protect Hong Kong against the marauding impulses of junior governments and individual bureaucracies.

Another observer who voices unexpected optimism is mainland dissident Han Dong-fang, who now lives with his wife and two young children on Hong Kong's Lamma Island. Han, a trade union organizer, says he has no plans to flee Hong Kong before the handover. "I still trust the rule of law here," he says. But he warns that Hong Kong's people must be prepared to insist on their freedoms. "If you keep quiet," says Han, "you give up yourself." It is an argument that Democrat Martin Lee echoes. "If you assume that a bamboo curtain is coming down," says the urbane, soft-spoken legislator, "you will restrict your freedoms yourself. People should just be brave enough and courageous enough to carry on as before."

Seen in that light, the less there is for the legions of international media to report from Hong Kong during next week's extravaganza of fireworks and ceremony, the better the omens for the territory's future. For Hong Kong and its many admirers, no news may be the best news of all.

Leader or puppet?

If anyone has reason to mistrust the man who will take over Hong Kong's administration next week, it is Han Dong-fang. The high-profile political refugee from the Chinese mainland knows well how harshly Beijing's leadership deals with dissent. But Han's judgment of Tung Chee-hwa is surprisingly positive. "In China we have a saying," Han explains, sitting in his home on Hong Kong's Lamma Island. "If you are the same, you 'wear the same trousers.' Mr. Tung is not going to wear the same trousers as the Chinese government."

The 60-year-old chief executive-designate certainly seems to be cut from different cloth than the party apparatchiks in power in Beijing. Although Tung was born in Shanghai, his family fled the city ahead of the Communists in 1949. His father, C. Y. Tung, allied himself instead with the Nationalist regime, shifting his shipping business across the Taiwan Strait to Taipei. The younger Tung was educated as a marine engineer in Britain and later worked in Boston and San Francisco. His three children were born in the United States and are American citizens. Between 1980 and 1985, Tung again lived in Taiwan. And until about a year ago, his greatest notoriety probably had more to do with a James Bond movie than politics: The Man with the Golden Gun was partly filmed in the wreck of the SS Queen Elizabeth, which C.Y.'s family owned and had turned into "Seawise University" before it capsized in Hong Kong harbor after a spectacular 1971 fire.

Still, Tung has qualities that Beijing plainly admires. Self-effacing and diplomatic, he is keenly proud of his Chinese heritage. "Asians," he has said, "are different from Americans." He speaks frequently about the values he believes make them so: respect for elders, a belief in order and stability, an emphasis on obligations to the community rather than rights of the individual. In addition, Tung is widely believed to be directly in Beijing's debt. After the family shipping firm ran into financial trouble in the early 1980s, a business friend arranged for China to contribute to a $120-million bailout.

That, and Tung's readiness to fall into line with Beijing's insistence on watering down Hong Kong civil liberties, have opened the genial brush-cut businessman to charges that he will be little more than China's front man. "Unfortunately," says one of his strongest critics, Democratic Party leader Martin Lee, "Mr. Tung is seen by Hong Kong people as being China's apologist, not as the defender of Hong Kong's freedoms." The impression that Tung's autonomy is limited has been reinforced by Beijing's plans to open not one, but two missions in Hong Kong after July 1, both named the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. One will belong to the foreign ministry, the other to the interior ministry. The Xinhua News Agency, for decades China's de facto embassy in the territory, will also remain.

But Tung rejects the notion that he will be Beijing's puppet. "Under the principle of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, in which I have full confidence," he says, "I believe Beijing will not send an overlord here." Mainland-connected analysts support that view, arguing that the Chinese offices have legitimate work to do. Han does, too. "If one day there is a big demonstration against the Chinese government," he muses, "and they ask Mr. Tung to sign an order asking the soldiers to shoot people in Nathan Road, will he sign or quit? I say he will quit." Everyone hopes that Tung will never face such a test. But on the eve of assuming his new duties, the businessman turned politician has yet to demonstrate that, whoever's trousers he wears, he will be able to stand on his own two feet.

Erasing the symbols of Britain's rule

It is one of the more bizarre images of Britain's imperial stamp on Hong Kong: for decades, the emblem of the Royal Hong Kong Police has been a drug deal. Recalling the colony's origins in the mid-19th century Opium Wars, the crest that identifies police has carried a scene of British traffickers selling bales of the drug to Chinese distributors on the Hong Kong waterfront. After the July 1 handover to China, that image will finally be replaced - by a stylized version of the city's distinctive waterfront. The change is just part of a massive operation to erase as many symbols of British rule as possible before the transfer. "As of midnight, June 30," said Hong Kong government spokesman Bret Free last week, "anything that carries the suggestion of British sovereignty should be down."

It is a major task. No fewer than 80,000 employees of the territory's police, customs, fire and correctional staff will need to replace one element or another of their uniforms to conform to the new political reality. In recent months, crowns have been removed or painted over on 700 mailboxes. The word "royal" has been left off marked police vehicles for several years now. After July 1, civil servants' stationery will carry the letterhead of the new regional government. In all, the changes are expected to cost at least $6 million.

Still, some things will stay the same. Apart from the metamorphosis of a large and popular green space from Victoria Park to Hong Kong Central Park, most place names reflecting the British past will not change, at least not immediately. Incoming chief executive Tung Chee-hwa has said new names are "unnecessary." The colonial mansion occupied by Gov. Chris Patten will still be used, but as a VIP guest house.

Ironically, one place where the symbols of Imperial Britain will remain untouched is the chamber where Hong Kong's controversial Beijing-appointed legislature will sit. Architects who examined a large sandstone crown atop the pillared colonial building determined that it could not be removed without damaging the structure. As a result, the lawmakers will be forced to hold their meetings under the royal crown - literally, if no longer figuratively.

Maclean's July 1, 1997