A decade after hand-over, Hong Kong still marches to its own beat

[26 June 2007]

By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

HONG KONG—A decade after Hong Kong returned to China’s control, the steamy tropical air of this money-churning enclave has grown more polluted. Residents exercise outdoors at their peril, and during the latest spring marathon, thousands of runners were left gasping for medical treatment.

On city streets, the singsong-y Mandarin Chinese spoken by millions of visitors from the mainland is intruding now on the guttural local Cantonese dialect.

But in most other regards, it’s business as usual, and in some ways it’s better than ever. Hong Kong’s economy is firing on all cylinders, churning out new millionaires and even billionaires.

Last month, with the stock market listing of a leading footwear company, Belle International, two people joined Hong Kong’s list of 21 billionaires. Some 67,000 people—1 in about every 100—are millionaires.

Its stock market sells more shares of newly listed companies than the New York Stock Exchange. Workers keep erecting impossibly tall buildings along Hong Kong harbor.

Most experts agree that China has largely stuck to its “hands off” pledge for the former British colony, allowing the territory to retain its separate laws, currency and way of life.

Before the 1997 hand-over, uncertainty gripped the territory, sparking an exodus of hundreds of thousands of residents. Fortune magazine forecast “The Death of Hong Kong” on its cover. Yet questions about the city’s vitality slowly dissipated.

“The biggest surprise is that Hong Kong has done pretty well,” said David Zweig, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders will arrive for the July 1 hand-over commemorations, with some 400 events and cultural shows in the surrounding period. The underlying message: Anything the British did, we Chinese can do as well.

British officials, who requested an invitation, were politely told that the festivities would be “different in nature” from those of 1997, when Prince Charles presided.

The British imprint, after 156 years of colonial rule, remains on the city, from the double-decker buses to the white wigs that judges don in court. Before the hand-over, China agreed to a “one country, two systems” arrangement in which it promised not to tamper with Hong Kong’s laissez-faire economy and common-law system for 50 years. Only defense and foreign policy are exempt from the autonomy pledge.

“We can truly say that the implementation of `one country, two systems’ has been a success,” the dapper, bow tie-wearing chief executive, Donald Tsang, told Hong Kong’s 6.9 million people in a broadcast last week.

In some ways, China’s oversight of Hong Kong has remained invisible. After the 1989 Tiananmen uprising, when China’s military crushed a pro-democracy movement, many in Hong Kong feared that they’d see Chinese soldiers in their midst. That hasn’t happened.

“There are no tanks, no army, no military people in the streets. The only time we see them is when they open the barracks and invite people in,” said Jeffrey Lam, a member of the territory’s parliament, or Legislative Council.

Free speech is protected. Residents often see banners on city streets condemning China’s ruling Communist Party. Demonstrations by Falun Gong, which Beijing labels an “evil cult,” occur routinely.

Yet China’s influence is noticeable to the eye and ear. Mainlanders have poured into Hong Kong since 2003, when Beijing relaxed travel rules after the devastating SARS viral epidemic whacked Hong Kong’s economy. Last year, 13.6 million mainlanders came to Hong Kong, half of its tourists.

Economic and social integration is increasing.

In 1997, Hong Kong had one rail and two road connections to the mainland; now it’s two rail and four road connections.

Hong Kong factory owners employ some 11 million people on the mainland.

Throbbing industrial activity in the Pearl River Delta region across the border is one reason that Hong Kong’s air has gone bad. The rising pollution is affecting recruitment efforts by Western companies with offices here.

“At times when I look out my window, I can’t even see across the street,” said Francis Moriarty, a senior political reporter with Hong Kong Radio Television, the government broadcaster.

The major gripe that some Hong Kong residents have with Beijing is the lack of a clear timetable for full democracy, which the British also denied them.

In 2003 and 2004 as many as half a million people poured into city streets to demand transition to universal suffrage and full-scale direct elections.

An 800-member, Beijing-backed committee chooses the territory’s chief executive, and only half the 60 members of the Legislative Council are directly elected.

Not all the blame falls on Beijing, though. Periodic opinion polls show that although three-fifths of Hong Kong’s residents want direct elections, the remainder include pro-Beijing leftist groups and rightist business interests that fear democracy would bring only taxation and social spending.

Some in the business community “believe that if you have democracy, then people will demand free lunches, more social welfare and higher taxes,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor at City University Hong Kong and the secretary general of the Civic Party, a pro-democracy faction.

“If they could freeze it (the status quo) for another 30 or 40 years, they would clap their hands and drink champagne,” added Lee Wing-tat, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party. “They just want to delay it, delay it, delay it.”

Pro-business politicians are loath to oppose direct elections openly. Instead, they talk about the immaturity of the citizenry and their fear of social chaos.

“I don’t think people are ready,” said Lam, the lawmaker from the Liberal Party, which represents business interests. “What if it doesn’t work? What if something negative happens?”

Powerful business groups, rather than Beijing, have tried to quell voices calling for swift moves toward democracy, boycotting the popular Apple Daily newspaper, owned by Jimmy Lai, an unrelenting advocate of full direct elections.

“If you read Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and nothing else, you would think that there is no real estate industry in Hong Kong,” Lai said in an essay last month, noting that the advertising boycott costs his media empire more than $250 million a year in lost revenue.

But the pro-democracy fervor has died down with an economic rebound and the removal of the feckless former chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, in 2005.

In five more years, Hong Kong will need to find a new chief executive to replace Tsang, whose term ends then. Some experts say that Hong Kong residents won’t object if Beijing retains the right to vet candidates for the top office, as long as it allows a free election among several contenders.

For now, though, many focus only on the celebrations in the days ahead.

“One thing for sure to celebrate,” legislator Fred Li said, “is we still maintain the same life. The capitalist system is still here.”

Zweig, the social scientist, added: “This is still an efficient, terrific city to live in.”

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HONG KONG FACTS:

Population: 6.9 million, mostly Cantonese speakers. English is also an official language.

Geography: A 450-square-mile enclave on China’s southeastern shore, comprising many islands. Name means “fragrant harbor” in Cantonese.

Per capita income: $24,045, among the highest in Asia

Work force: 3.5 million people but only 1.3 million pay income taxes.

Media: Largest number of newspapers per capita of any major world city.

Recent troubles: Since the 1997 hand-over to China, Hong Kong has endured the Asian financial crisis that same year, fallout from the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the 2003 SARS health epidemic and a simmering threat from bird flu that erupted in 2005.

Quote: “As small and inconspicuous as it is on a world map, Hong Kong is a city with a big heart. ... Countless individuals have given their best to make Hong Kong the prosperous, vibrant, inclusive, open and highly civilized city it is today.”—Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s chief executive, in a speech June 18.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/a-decade-after-hand-over-hong-kong-still-marches-to-its-own-beat/