On this trip I sensed a new fatalism among people in Hong Kong – something that I never observed before. In the past, folks I spoke with in Hong Kong seemed tentatively optimistic about their return to China. They talked about being more politically and economically advanced that the mainland. They thought that they would illuminate the path as the mainland progressed. This time around, the folks I spoke with were talking differently. As one friend put it, “China will win. Hong Kong will lose. We are too small to make any difference.” I suspect this change results from the economic rise of China without a corresponding increase in freedom or democracy combined with the fact that the U.K. and the rest of the West struggling and disengaging the region, Hong Kong realizes that China is its future.
Britain took Hong Kong as a concession after the Opium Wars (1840, 1860, 1892) and held Hong Kong as a colony until 1997. At that time, Hong Kong was returned to China. While things weren’t completely rosy under the British, the decade or so before the handover some improvements were made in make government more open to Chinese Hong Kong residents – both in terms of holding positions of power and in terms of democracy. In contemporary China, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) operating quasi-independently under the “One nation, two governments” policy in place until 2047. The border between Hong Kong and the mainland is tightly controlled. While it is no problem for Hong Kong residents to travel within China, your average Chinese must acquire a visa to enter Hong Kong. Hong Kong has its own television and radio stations, currency, free press, etc. Certainly China has tested the independence of Hong Kong in the years since the handover – most notably through application of Proposition 23 – which gives the mainland the power to intervene in instances when national security is at risk (and has been used to limit the independent press, etc).
Despite all of this, at least from my perspective, Hong Kong is decidedly NOT China. While the mainland is quickly catching up when it comes to economic development, Hong Kong has been developed longer and is more evenly developed (in China most people still live in rural areas where they may have televisions and cell phones but that does not mean they have running water). The most striking difference, though, is Hong Kong’s relative freedom of speech. Coming off the train after the 2 hour trip from Guangzhou and walking to the taxi stand, you pass by a row of posters describing China’s human rights atrocitites – The Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap Forward, the Tianmen Square Massacre, the Repression of Falun Gong. Passing those posters vividly depicting injustices that most Mainland Chinese know very little about is a rite of passage into Hong Kong. The fact of the problem cannot be denied and the responsibilities of citizens to be aware and condemn such acts is implied.
Will Hong Kong cease to be? When I next return will the posters be down while the ignorance and fatalistic aquiescence that characterizes the mainland’s relationship to the excesses of government will have taken root? I hope not, but like the friend I quoted above, I see the weight of China’s cultural roots, economic muscle and its particular government which is simulataneously repressive and disinterested, everywhere and nowhere. I also do not see how Hong Kong could win.