The year 1997 was a special one for millions of people around the world with Hong Kong connections. Some celebrated, while others feared the prospects for Chinese control. However one could argue that in terms of impact on society, the British handover of Hong Kong, much like the overblown anxieties about Y2K building at the same time, was much ado about nothing. For the most part the territory is the same bustling business center that it has been for the last sixty years.
Yet just how Hong Kong came to be such an unusual territory is an amazing story in itself. Looking at the current state of the city one cannot help but wonder how this metropolis of bright lights, overbearing buildings, and contradictions evolved so differently than the rest of China. Ten years have passed since the memorable handover, and in order to understand what Hong Kong is now, it is best to take a long view of its strange and rich history.
Forcing China’s Hand
By the 19th Century, the British Empire had become heavily dependent upon the importation of products from China, a country that saw little value in foreign goods. The result was a major trade imbalance in China’s favor and great consternation for the British rulers who saw the situation as an untenable draining of their precious metal supplies. In an effort to create a market where one did not exist the British ‘skirted’ the law and began to import a good that creates its own buyers: opium.
China’s leaders looked on in despair as its population became increasingly addicted and docile while the drug spread throughout the country. After several warnings a skirmish escalated into the Opium Wars, still one of the great embarrassments in Chinese history. The result was a number of skewed treaties, one of which gave the new territories area of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom for ninety-nine years to end in 1997.
During those intervening years before Hong Kong returned to the mainland the city underwent tremendous change, and not a little bit of turmoil. For nearly four years during World War II the colonial rulers were replaced by the imperial Japanese. Following the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese unconditionally surrendered and turned Hong Kong back over to the British. Ironically Great Britain saw no contradiction in their own occupation being the preferred method of ‘liberation.’
However, for the residents of Hong Kong, it turned out to be an economic blessing that the British maintained control following the war. While China sputtered, suffering though two economic disasters (The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution) Hong Kong plowed forward becoming a great trading port and financial hub. By the time reconciliation came into view, Beijing had already begun to mimic Hong Kong’s free-wheeling market economy. China’s Open Door Policy (改革开放) was already in full-swing and state control over business was beginning to recede.
The Road to Reconciliation
By the early 1980s, the British and Chinese were both keenly aware that the 1997 handover date was quickly approaching. Handover negotiations were needed, particularly to ease concerns in the business community. There were serious worries that uncertainty would cause a mass exodus of both financial and human capital, possibly undoing years of economic progress. Negotiations went on for more than five years culminating in the Sino-British Joint Declaration on December 19, 1984, in which the two sides agreed on terms for the transfer of power.
This document introduced the central “One Country, Two Systems” principle whereby Hong Kong would be a part of the People’s Republic of China, yet retain a ‘high degree of autonomy’ and remain socially ‘unchanged for 50 years.’ Hong Kong was to have a special constitution called the Basic Law which was formally promulgated on April 4, 1990. Yet despite talk of significant autonomy, some in the city continued to fear turbulent political or economic changes that might occur.
When the Basic Law document was drafted at the start of the 1990s mainland China had only just begun coming out of its most unstable period of the post-Mao era. With this concern in mind, many residents, both foreign and Hong Kong natives, began migrating en masse to countries such as Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States. Between 1984 and 1997 nearly one million people left Hong Kong leading to employment problems and capital losses.
Despite this historic population shift, overall the transition has been remarkably smooth, and there are signs of continually deepening integration. In 2003, the mainland and Hong Kong governments signed the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), a free trade agreement that strives to strengthen trade and investment cooperation between the two. In addition, travel restrictions to Hong Kong have eased, and mainland Chinese can now go there without joining a tour group as they were once required to do.
With its vast expertise in financial markets and service industries, Hong Kong has a tremendous amount to offer China, which is still becoming adjusted to inclusion in the international business world. Investors from Hong Kong have similarly flooded money north, and began doing so even before the wider world got in on the act. The city also serves as a valuable resource for the mainland’s efforts to modernize its legal, media, and financial institutions. In some senses it is the testing grounds for greater Chinese reform.
There have been a number of more subtle changes as a result of closer ties. Hong Kong high school and university students have increasingly chosen to study on the mainland or in join exchange programs. Hong Kong universities are now in competition with the top mainland institutions to attract elite talent. Campuses today are swarming with Chinese students who have come to experience the cosmopolitan life and international classroom environment that may not be available at home.
In primary and secondary schools, while English is still taught as part of the curriculum, Mandarin has been elevated to a core subject. Results thus far have been mixed, but things will likely improve as time goes on. Perhaps more importantly, education officials are trying to instill students with a national Chinese identity through the teaching of traditional culture, geography, and history.
Another development that seems to reflect Hong Kong’s status as a highly developed economy is its dropping birth rate that mimics those in Europe. It now welcomes immigration from the mainland to make up for this shortfall in population growth. The aim has been to target ‘quality migrants’, much as other countries do. This policy has helped to attract much needed talent. Perhaps the most famous immigrant from this group is the world renowned pianist, Lang Lang, who was among the first to be admitted under the program.
Even among average Chinese citizens migration has risen as many Hong Kong locals have chosen to marry their counterparts from the north, and as families that had been separated reunite. However, caps have been put in place to limit flows to one hundred and fifty people per day, resulting in long lines and lingering bureaucratic red tape. Many believe the wait is well worth it, particularly for young men: in contrast to China’s increasing gender gap where men outnumber women, the ladies far exceed the gents in Hong Kong.
Some of the post-handover changes are quite visible in everyday life. Queen Elizabeth’s portrait no longer graces the bank notes or stamps, although pre-1997 coins are still in circulation. Instead, the Bauhinia, the flower of Hong Kong, has replaced the British monarch on all currency. Since the Union Jack, a dominant symbol of the United Kingdom, went down for the last time on June 30th, the only flags that can be seen at government buildings are its two replacements, those of Hong Kong and China. Even the color of the mailboxes has been changed from red to green, an ironic twist for a city moving from capitalist to communist rule.
So where does all of this leave Hong Kong? Is it an island unto itself, moving past the British, but not sure how it fits into the Middle Kingdom? Or is it an independent entity that no longer spends much time worrying about who controls its destiny?
With a robust economy, a vibrant—and increasingly assertive—community, and a history of success, Hong Kong seems to have little to worry about going forward. Over the last two hundred years the city has been occupied, re-occupied, and handed back to its ‘owners’ on two different occasions. In spite of all of these transitions the city looks surprisingly strong and unruffled. Clearly it takes more than a little power struggle to ruffle those in Hong Kong. Ten years on things look pretty good. CE
Derrick Chang is a photographer living in Hong Kong. He runs the photography website MaskofChina.com