Home > General > Some thoughts on Hong Kong.

Some thoughts on Hong Kong.

I wrote this before Janus posted his blog, but my internet was too slow and I had to save it until today.

When the United Kingdom and China were negotiating the retrocession, or betrayal as some argue, of Hong Kong to China some British diplomats argued that the Chinese can get very nasty if they don’t get their way. With time against them and holding only a very weak hand, the British government did the best it could for Britain’s last major colony. At least in theory, Hong Kong would control most of its own affairs and have a separate status for at least 50 years. If China pleased, it could continue as it was far beyond that. Formalities concluded, flags exchanged and anything not unduly difficult to remove removed, Hong Kong once again became Chinese territory.

Despite the ceremonies and the official line, this was not an event happily accepted. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers left Hong Kong, establishing bridgeheads in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. If things became too bad in Hong Kong something could always be arranged elsewhere. Again, despite what some aspects in China and even Hong Kong itself argue, the vast majority of those who left were not criminals. Rather, they were people who with good reason did not trust the integrity of Beijing.

Since then, life has continued in Hong Kong much as before. Some of the more irrational fears, that China would immediately integrate Hong Kong into the mainland and giving it status little different than Shanghai or Tianjin have been proven to be unfounded. Outwardly life in Hong Kong has changed little since 1997. People still drive on the correct side of the road, Hong Kong dollars still circulate, the press is far freer than on the mainland and there are actually contrary (!) opinions printed. Passports remain distinct, the English language is still official, and Cantonese is still spoken and proper Chinese characters are still used. Hong Kong is still an open city and, unlike the mainland, Westerners do not need a visa to visit.

Yet, things have been off in Hong Kong. While not directly breaking the terms of the Sino-British agreement on the retrocession of Hong Kong, the Chinese have still acted in poor faith. Indirect pressure has been placed on the press. No one has been arrested and political protests are usually permitted, but anyone writing something too critical of Beijing has her/his financial interests indirectly threatened. If that is too obvious, key advertisers have their finances indirectly threatened. The education system is still distinct, but efforts were made to try to harmonise the content with that of the mainland in tone if not text. In a direct attack on Cantonese pride, proposals were even drafted to emphasise Mandarin over Cantonese. Cantonese speakers frequently say that they prefer speaking English over Mandarin because the tone structure is so different that non-tonal English is easier for them to master. Mainlanders frequently buy the best properties, or any property for that matter driving up the cost of housing to such an extent that formerly middle-class Hong Kongers have become impoverished. Mainland women also have formed a habit of taking a short holiday in the territory to give birth, this circumventing Chinese family planning laws. Through force of numbers, this frequently overwhelms Hong Kong hospitals.

I knew last year that something was going to give eventually. In just two years the atmosphere had changed dramatically. I never felt uncomfortable there. No one showed me any animosity and most people were very helpful. Yet, there was a tension in the air – as if something had to give. Despite the city being as beautiful as ever; I was relieved when I passed through Taiwanese passport control. In the last few days something finally has given. In fact, much of the city has come to a complete halt. Tear gas is being used against demonstrators; brutality has been exhibited by members of the police force as well as protestors. This isn’t just casual invective any more. It breaks my heart to see this happening in a city that I have come to truly love.

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Categories: General
  1. Soutie
    October 2, 2014 at 5:36 am

    Thank you Christopher, it’s a part of the world we hear very little about, the recent protests have of course gained front page news here, your post has helped to add some background to the current goings on.

  2. October 2, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Thank you, Christopher. We all wondered what would happen when HK was handed back, but I’m sorry to see it has come to this.

  3. October 2, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Nice piece, Christopher and I have nothing much to add about the causes of the protests. I would like to point out though that the police brutality seems to have been shut down pretty quickly, apart from some isolated incidents, and as for brutality from the protesters – no broken windows or trashed shops, looting, no violence, no rioting, swift clearing of lanes for emergency services and the protestors are cleaning up their rubbish as they go along. Only in Hong Kong would you get McDonalds delivering phone orders to the crowds – a friend posted on his facebook page that, on his way home from demonstrating in the early hours one morning, the taxi driver refused the fare and insisted he take a gift of HK$ 500 to buy snacks for the demonstrators.

    A couple of vignettes:

    And a little humour:

    And the protestors have hit on a Cantonese version of ‘Can you hear the people sing’ from Les Mis as their anthem. Sniffle time:

  4. October 2, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    I suspect that HK isn’t the only part of China that the Chinese Govt is having problems with.
    The Communist Party will eventually lose control. It’s just a question of how chaotic it will be.

  5. October 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Bravo: Hong Kong’s police force is excellent. Few Hong Kongers have ever complained about them or indicated that they feared them in any way. Things do go wrong on occasion, but it is generally a civilised and civilising presence. It’s rather different on the mainland where for the most part people fear the police and avoid them whenever possible, going so far as preferring to not report crimes if they can manage.

    Araminta: it is remarkable to see how Anglophile Hong Kong’s population is, even after all this time. If anything, it seems to be growing increasingly Anglophile as time goes by. Even Hong Kongers who have few, if any, memories of life under the British are growing nostalgic.

    Jazz: there is a fear that if the Chinese government makes too many concessions to Hong Kong then Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing and even Beijing will demand concessions. With economic growth comes rising expectations.Most successful revolutions did not take place in times of desperation, but times of growing prosperity. When governments cannot adapt to changing social conditions, they often fall. On the other hand, Taiwan is watching this with trepidation. The Taiwanese have become increasingly resistant to any sort of union with China. Even if many Taiwanese work on the mainland they are increasingly seeing themselves as Taiwanese only and see China as merely another country they share a common language with. China has to work far harder with Taiwan than with Hong Kong or Macau. The fates of the latter two were decided in London and Lisbon, the former will be decided by the Taiwanese themselves.

  6. October 2, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Christopher, when the UK took out its lease on HK, it was adding another outpost of Empire strategically located for gunboat diplomacy and trade relations. Who could have predicted China’s integration and growth? And unsurprisingly the British Way became engrained in HK’ s culture – as it did throughout the countries of the Empire. While China may now wish to quell the flames of democracy, it probably wishes to avoid the baby-and-bathwater syndrome in HK where they have a peaceful interface with the West.

  7. October 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Janus: Hong Kong’s growth was complex. Hong Kong Island was ceded in perpetuity in 1842. The Kowloon Peninsula was ceded in perpetuity in 1860. The complication arouse form the New Territories which were ceded on a 99-year least in 1898. The British did not demand the New Territories in perpetuity because they did not want to give other imperial powers, especially Germany and France, the pretext to begin partitioning China among themselves. India was already as much as the British Empire could hope to handle. A large portion of China would have been a step too far. China at the time was also increasingly willing to put up more resistance than it had in the past. But your point is spot-on. One British official in Hong Kong, his name escapes me, said that he doubted the Chinese would ever get it together and after the least was over the UK could simply demand another lease of the same length.

    The Chinese have very mixed feelings about Hong Kong. On one hand, they want and need the money. Hong Kong has done much to finance the mainland and its distinct legal system makes it far easier for China to raise money. International banks and businesses trust Hong Kong in ways that they never would, or even if they wanted to, could the mainland. At the same time, Hong Kongers are often seen as traitors — Chinese who were only too happy to live under Western colonial rule. Hong Kongers are also seen by many as not suitably grateful for re-unification with “Mother China”. Key to this is that the Chinese have for generations been taught to hate the West. Since Jiang Zemin’s “patriotic education” programme, started in the 1990s, the Chinese have grown hyper-nationalistic. The other major sore spot for them is Taiwan which, in some ways, galls them even more than Hong Kong. That Taiwan is closer to Japan than China, that the Taiwanese celebrate their period of rule by Japan is a knife to the heart of mainland anti-Japanese chauvinism.

  8. October 3, 2014 at 10:27 am

    I spent a bit over 15 years in Hong Kong, soldier and civilian and it is true that the police and the other government agencies are reasonably well-respected , after the clear-out of the corrupt old guard in the late 70s and 80s. It is also true that HK is, usually, and in most respects, a polite and orderly society, with traditional Chinese virtues underpinning the values the people have adopted from the years of colonial government. I think that this is well demonstrated in the manner that Hong Kongers have managed, and are managing the presentation of their wishes for a more democratic way of choosing their Chief Executive.

  9. October 3, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Gosh, Bravo! 15 years! That’s some input!

  10. October 3, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Bravo: I see that today there were some scuffles between local residents of Mong Kok growing tired of the protests, pro-Beijing activists and the protesters. The police stepped in to keep peace without showing clear preference for either side. I can understand the views of local residents. These protests were always going to, at best, be controversial. While the aims of the protesters might be supported by the overwhelming majority of Hong Kongers, their tactics were not quite as popular. Having lived through the height of the “Occupy” movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m well aware of how disruptive these tactics are. The pro-Beijing crowd are another matter altogether. In general, I’ve found the lot to be very unpleasant. My personal experiences with them have left me with a bad taste in my mouth that continues to colour my views on mainland China and Chinese. Even years of close friendship with mainland Chinese has not been able to remove this taint. The pro-Beijing faction in Hong Kong also have a long history of causing a lot of problems in the city. That they suddenly re-cast themselves as upholders of order and people in the right shows just how hypocritical they are considering how disruptive they were for decades.

  11. October 3, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    It seems that the pro-beijing faction have been at it in Mongkok and Causeway bay with masked men attacking the protestors. Triads have been accused of taking part also – which is not that much of a surprise in Mongkok. In another ‘you gotta love HK’ moment, protestors have been organising access and promoting business for stallholders in Central and Admiralty, texting and messaging each other with the names and locations of stalls they should visit.

    More serious from the protestors point of view is the hit the HK Stock Exchange is taking…

  12. christinaosborne
    October 3, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    ‘We all wondered what would happen when China took it back.’

    No we didn’t. Not least the wealthy HKers that established fiscal beach heads elsewhere!
    Re -assimilation by Beijing was on the cards from the beginning, just the speed of which in doubt.

  13. October 3, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    I seriously wonder why we refused passports to a couple of million hard-working, educated, mildly weaternised Hong Kongers, then handed them out willy nilly to the same number of ill-educated, backward South Asians.

  14. October 3, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    Bravo: it seems as if Triads have no further loyalty than their immediate profit. When the pro-Beijing faction were causing problems in the 1950s the Triads put them into their place quickly. Now, with more money coming from the mainland, they do the opposite. I wonder how many of the pro-Beijing faction are from the mainland or have so many interests in the mainland that they out of necessity they do Beijing’s bidding.

    CO: even middle class Hong Kongers try to set up beachheads abroad. If they can’t afford a house, they at least help one family member set up abroad and gradually move one-by-one. Some of my Hong Kong acquaintances have done that in California.

  15. October 3, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    Bravo: because those hard-working, mildly Westernised Hong Kongers would likely be apolitical and have low birthrates. Backwards South Asians would be reliable Labour voters and have high birthrates.

  16. christinaosborne
    October 3, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Quite christopher, they saw it coming. One would have had to have been particularly obtuse not to see that writing on the wall.
    I find it fantastically curious how so called intelligent people do not see what is coming and ascribe good intentions to all and sundry. Much better to be cynical, pragmatic and generally hard bitten about such things, one is rarely disappointed! I so much prefer dogs to people!

  17. October 3, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Christopher: Quite so. (On both comments.)

  18. October 3, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    CO: I am very sympathetic to your viewpoint. Lately I’ve made myself very unpopular in Hunland by pointing out in no uncertain terms the absurdities of German attitudes and just how dangerous complacence is. One may not like the French or Italian tendency to strike at the drop of a hat, but they are at least willing to stand up for themselves.

    Bravo: I just read one account that many of the black-masked thugs cannot speak Cantonese. It seems as if instead of sending in tanks, Beijing is sending in “braves-for-hire” to do their dirty work without directly implicating them or the Hong Kong government.

  19. October 3, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    Do you have a link for that, Christopher?

  20. October 6, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Thanks Christopher.

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