The beauty of hindsight is that it is easy to point out folly without taking risk. We can mock foolish predictions and laud those who had strong foresight. It takes boldness and vision to get out ahead of the curve and foretell what the world will look like in the future. But should we not also praise those who understand their own limitations and stand on the sideline tossing stones?
It is those people who understand that they are not visionaries, but nonetheless have decided to judge the prognosticators, whom we should admire. Well, perhaps not admire, but at least not shun.
It is in this spirit that China Expat has decided to look at statements about the Hong Kong transfer exactly ten years after its return to the motherland. We have sifted through our archives and found out what some experts were saying about the long-term impact of the handover:
All the opinions boil down to basic attitudes: you’re either an optimist or a pessimist. Optimists start from the premise that it is so much in Beijing’s interest to make Hong Kong work that it is bound to keep its promises.
-Johanna McGeary, Time Magazine senior foreign correspondent June 30 1997
McGeary had the situation pegged pretty well. There were two sides of the argument, and for the most part the optimists had it right. The Asian Financial Crisis was a difficult period, but it cannot be particularly blamed on Beijing. Similarly SARS was also a major problem, for which China took significant heat, and eventually accepted responsibility. Along the way there have been occasional backlashes, but in the end the transition has gone remarkably smoothly. In fact, most of the draconian measures that the pessimists anticipated have yet to materialize.
There are numerous reasons why many were distinctly unenthusiastic about the transition. British-style governance serves as the basis for most of the countries where the pundits live, most notably America. London was familiar and comfortable to most of the English-speaking world, while many still saw Beijing as the big-bad communist boogey-man.
In 1997 China was struggling to cement its place in the international community. Ten years on it is a member of the WTO and will soon host the Olympics. While some remain wary of China today, it has a much stronger relationship with the western world than it did a decade ago.
If Beijing handles the transition well, it will substantially brighten its future relations with the United States.
- Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives April 1997
This was not simply the view of western politicians, but also lawmakers in China. Ruling Hong Kong was a major opportunity for Beijing to prove that it was wise and should be trusted, so it made every effort to ensure success. Gingrich was absolutely right that the handover was a perfect opportunity for Beijing to prove itself a responsible partner. Today China’s relationship with most western countries has improved substantially.
As dawn rises for the first time over red Chinese flags officially fluttering in a capitalist breeze, the most fascinating question is not how China will change Hong Kong but how Hong Kong will change China — and the world beyond… The notion that tiny Hong Kong could reshape China is conceivable only because Hong Kong arguably has always been more important as an idea than as a place. For decades it has served as an example of prosperity and a model of economic and political laissez-faire, a catalyst for troubling reflections.
–Nicholas Kristof, New York Times commentator July 1 1997
If China is to continue economic development, reforms and opening up, we still need Hong Kong as a bridge and window.
- Qian Qichen, Chinese Vice-Premier 1997
Kristof, who spent a number of years in China and is well-versed on the region, makes an interesting argument. However he seems to have overstated his claim significantly on the specific impact of reunification. Mainland China began moving toward a liberal economy as a response to Hong Kong’s success well before the handover.
Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen also pointed out that Hong Kong was a model for development and reform, but his use of the word “still” cuts to the heart of the matter. China began reform independent of the handover. Were Britain still the colonial ruler today, it is unlikely that China’s economic state would look much different than it does.
While the economic liberalization prong of Kristof’s point can be debated, he also seemed to be referring to broad political changes. The idea that Beijing would embrace British-style governance was naïve at best. When communist countries fell across the Eastern Bloc, China managed to readjust its economic policy, and in doing so assured the viability of its government. “Tiny Hong Kong” was certainly not going to turn Beijing on its head.
One could argue that the biggest mistake in Kristof’s analysis was not so much misreading the situation in Beijing, but rather his idealizing British Hong Kong. Our next quotation should shed significant little light on this matter.
Hong Kong was seized by force from a weak China. The British ruled Hong Kong as a British colony — not a democracy.
–Sam Nunn, former US Senator 1997
Many of the ‘pessimists’ to whom Johanna McGeary referred tried to make Beijing into a villain, while lionizing the glories of Downing Street. The problem, of course, is that this requires revisionist history. Under British rule Hong Kong transformed into an economic tiger, but the government was not held to the same standards of openness that London was. Most of the governmental reform took place in the two years prior to handover and were transparent attempts to make people forget the longer history.
In the end the British were no more liberators of Hong Kong than they were of America in the 18th century: they ruled on their own terms from a great distance. People seem to confuse British internal governance with that which they imposed on others. Hong Kong spent one hundred and fifty-five years as a colony, and two as a partial democracy.
If we say that it was General de Gaulle who brought an end to French colonialism, then we can also say that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has brought an end to British colonial rule.
–Deng Xiaoping, former Communist Party leader 1984
There is no doubt that Deng Xiaoping was one of the most remarkable leaders of the 20th century. A tiny man of less than five feet tall, his intellect and ability to read situations was uncanny. By framing the handover as an issue of shedding colonialism, something that had already been done in India, throughout Africa and in the Middle East, Deng managed to make Thatcher into a diplomatic pioneer. Deng correctly pointed out that Hong Kong was one of the last remnants of 19th century colonialism, and all of the problems it represented.
Yet even as Deng managed to praise the British, he also insulted them in the same mischievous swoop. On the one hand handing Hong Kong to the Chinese was heroic, but on the other hand he also criticized everything the British had done before, dating back hundreds of years. Only a particularly gifted statesman can achieve these two goals at the same time.
The reason we have enjoyed autonomy for the past 50 years was not because the British were here but because China wanted it.
-David Chu 1997, a real estate tycoon who sat on both the outgoing and incoming legislatures
Mr. Chu was hardly as diplomatic as Deng, but his argument had a certain amount of validity that explained future developments. Following the founding of the People’s Republic, China chose to allow the “Hong Kong experiment” to continue. Although it is debatable how much the mainland could have done early on, certainly by the later-Mao era Beijing could have pushed harder for its return without any strings attached.
Instead China saw Hong Kong as a testing ground for market-based economics and decided to extend that trail farther north until it had spread across the country. When China and Great Britain agreed to terms of a handover they settled not to change certain aspects of society—like the school system—for at least fifty years. These conditions speak to the willingness of Beijing to implement a true two-policy system.
In 1997 some people showed a deftness and ability to understand the intentions and abilities of China. Others postulated based on what they wanted to happen, or simply failed to grasp some of the complexities of the situation. As we can see, perspective and position in the world is one of the great influencers of opinion. Not surprisingly, those tied to Beijing were much more likely to see the transition as a great turning point, while those in the West were more skeptical. Often in life, foresight is only as good as the view from where you stand. CE