by Tom Clifford
American Reporter Correspondent
Hong Kong, China
June 30, 2007
HONG KONG LESS FREE, BUT OTHERWISE UNCHANGED 10 YEARS AFTER TAKEOVER
HONG KONG, June 30, 2007 -- The greatest "Chinese take-out" in history occured 10 years ago today.
The heavens opened over Hong Kong on June 30, 1997, but the mandate of heaven was missing. For the next two weeks the deluge caused flooding, landslides and widescale traffic disruption eased only by a week-long holiday.
The atrocious stay-at-home weather made people brood. The mandate, a natural omen or piece of good fortune that every Chinese leader, emperor or communist, seeks to show he is the favorite of the gods, was absent. Surely, with the Union Jack lowered, protectorate Governor Chris Patten sailing away - fighting the battle of the bulge as he resisted HMS Britannia's dessert tray - and the Empire's last sunset, the gods should have been kinder?
Ten years later, the rain has stopped but the mandate has still not been granted.
Just what to call Hong Kong had been a problem in the politically sensitive 1990s. Officially, it was a colony, with its own governor's mansion - Beijing insisted that the new Bank of China should tower beside it to cast a shadow - but China's commercial and political influence over Hong Kong commenced long before that rainy June night.
The Chinese found any reference to part of their land as a "colony" deeply humiliating, and the British were, frankly old chap, a bit embarrassed by being colonial masters.
As London was formulating its historic East of Suez withdrawal, the government of Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson increasingly allowed the colony to manage its own affairs. The Cultural Revolution in China helped as well. With its teeming slums, Hong Kong was hardly a showcase for the benefits of living in the free West. A systematic slum clearance program began in the late 1960s, and in it were the seeds of Hong Kong's infatuation with property.
This benevolence from London extended to its dropping the word colony and referring to it as a territory or region. Hence the term the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong or SAR, which the former colony was called on July 1, 1997. Old China hands joked that it had always been an SAR - the Scottish Administrative Region - in that the Scots were the merchant masters of the British Empire.
In 1997, Tung Chee-hwa replaced Chris Patten as Hong Kong's leader. He had inherited his father's shipping company, ran it aground and was bailed out by Beijing to the tune of more than $100 million. Tung was obviously not a man upon whom the gods bestowed their favors, and just why Beijing picked him is still a cause of puzzlement. At least he stayed true to form.
Tung's years in office coincided with the Asian economic crisis which was followed by the bursting of the dot.com bubble and an outbreak of the SARS respiratory disease and bird flu, and property prices slumped 70 percent in the six years to mid-2003. Prices have since recovered, but there is a sense of opportunity lost. Today, "Made in Hong Kong" is no longer a code for cheap products, simply because the factories have closed and moved across the border where the banks and financial institutions that dominate the Hong Kong economy extend them credit.
Meanwhile, a proposed security law brought thousands onto the streets in protest in a place where political protest was almost unheard of. Beijing, like Victoria, was not amused. The security law was dropped but the stand-off rattled Beijing's nerves.
The Basic Law - the Cantonese, with their predictable New York-style snappy humor, call the Basic Flaw - was meant to guarantee 50 years of legislative independence from Beijing's diktats. From Beijing's point of view, backing down was not meant to be part of the plan.
Beijing's elite are not democrats, but neither are they immune to public opinion. Hong Kong had lost its vibrancy, and amid public unrest Tung was replaced in 2005 by Sir Donald Tsang. Nicknamed "Sir Generous" because of his giveaway budgets under Patten, the bow-tied leader is not a great helmsman but he has kept Hong Kong on an even keel.
But now the basic flaw becomes more apparent. Britain in 1997 kept on insisting it had played a poor hand well. "We had to give it back: after all, it wasn't ours," civil servants never tired of saying to camera crews strategically placed to capture the sun sinking into Victoria Harbour and setting on 150 years of colonial rule. In other words, London was saying cheerio, best of luck, but if you think for one moment that sentimental attachments to Hong Kong are going to hinder trade with China, well, sorry to disappoint, old chap, but you have the wrong end of the stick.
The trams still trundle, the ferry still plows across the harbor and tourists are still offered knock-off Rolex watches along Nathan Road. All the same then? Nothing changed since the handover?
There is an anniversary today, but is it the anniversary of Hong Kong maintaining its identity, or surrendering it? The gods have yet to speak.
Tom Clifford is Assistant International Editor of the Gulf News daily, based in Dubai.