Is it time to say farewell to the Hong Kong that I, like so many of us, have come to know and love? I don’t mean the physical, living, breathing city that has been my home for the past 25 years.
Come good or ill, as long as Hong Kong will have me, I will stay on to witness the next page-turning chapter in its always-fascinating development as a special administrative region of China. I never put a book down – especially a good book –in the middle of the narrative. But it may be time for all of us to say goodbye to an idea –or was it a naive ideal? – that we have nurtured for the past 17 years.
We have clung to “one country, two systems” like a mantra that would protect us through the turbulence that, even in our optimism, we fully expected would accompany Hong Kong’s prolonged and painful transition from British to Chinese sovereignty. We would never become just another Chinese city on the Pearl River Delta. The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law assured us of that.
Now, however, with the standing committee of the National People’s Congress set to deliver its proclamation on the city’s aspirations for democracy next week, it’s crunch time. As the verdict approaches, our city is torn and polarized, and fears abound that Deng Xiaoping’s famous “one country, two systems” formula for a happy and prosperous Hong Kong under Chinese rule may turn out to be a nothing more than a throwaway line.
The strained atmosphere and bitter and sometimes violent political clashes of the summer have led to much soul-searching about the city’s core values and bottom line—in my own case prompting reflection on why I came here in the first place. I am a teacher and a writer, so it wasn’t the money that lured me here. It was the contagious energy and indomitable spirit of the place that, in the end, proved irresistible.
Yes, Mammon has always had his grip on Hong Kong—if, that is, you focus on the unsavory antics of the property developers, financiers and business classes that have dictated the terms by which we have lived for far too long.
But that isn’t the real Hong Kong—not today and not back in the day when the British set about cultivating an elite class of Chinese that could be (almost but not quite) as graced and privileged as their colonial masters.
Ordinary Hongkongers have never cared much about what the ruling elite think.They just want a decent place to live at an affordable price and the freedom to express themselves and to vote for the leader of their choice.
They just disagree—and some disagree mightily—about how to achieve these aims.
I am reminded of a job-hunting trip I made to Singapore in December of 1989, six months after the bloody June 4 crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square—an event that shook the world, profoundly undermined confidence in the 1997 handover stipulated in the Joint Declaration and would soon prompt panicked hordes to grab their assets and flee the city for refuge in Canada, the United States and other perceived safe havens.
Friends and colleagues had warned me: Don’t go to Hong Kong, where I had already been offered employment. Fortune magazine would later predict “The Death of Hong Kong” on its cover.
My first night in Singapore, I tuned in to a speech the city’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minister, was delivering on television. The great man was making stern recommendations on patterns of reproduction for his people that would maintain what he regarded as the ideal ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans in his tightly controlled city-state. The first father of the quintessential nanny state had entered the bedroom.
Six months earlier, a million people had taken to the streets in Hong Kong in sympathy with the naive and doomed students—in Tiananmen. News reports told me that Hong Kong was a city with a population of around five million in 1989, meaning one in five people had turned out to support the demonstrators.
Actually, as I figured it—discounting infants, toddlers, young children, the infirm and the elderly—the support ratio was more like one in three. I knew which city I was going to. And I’m still here.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1