Enter the Dragon: After This Week, the Way That China's Relationship with Hong Kong Develops Will Be the Most Important Story of the Latter Part of the Century

By Fenby, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), June 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Enter the Dragon: After This Week, the Way That China's Relationship with Hong Kong Develops Will Be the Most Important Story of the Latter Part of the Century


Fenby, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


Hong Kong doesn't seem a likely setting for a laboratory test. Under the increasingly humid summer skies, with its perpetual sense of movement and endlessly bustling people (not to mention its heavily polluted air), the world's last great colony is far from meeting the clinical requirements of science, social or otherwise.

Still, this tiny territory, a pimple on the backside of China, is about to be the subject of one of the most important experiments of the 21st century. As things look today, the most important question as we emerge from the post-1945 world, may be what happens with China. (Not so much what happens to China because, important as that is, Beijing will, by and large, make up its own mind about everything from the political structure after Deng Xiaoping to the impending loss of 100 million industrial jobs.)

The outside world will have some impact: a decision by the World Trade Organisation to admit China or, in the opposite direction, the removal of Most Favoured Nation trading status by Washington would affect market reform-minded planners in Beijing. But what really counts as far as other nations are concerned is how they engage with this potential second superpower.

In this, Hong Kong will play a pivotal role, far beyond its size or formal status. The end of empire is fodder for a rash of television programmes, books, articles and kitsch. But to see the return of Hong Kong to China in those terms is to miss what really matters. For most people here, the transition from colonial rule has long passed. There will be no mad rush to the airport for flights to London, no panic selling of colonial furniture, no Hong Kong equivalent of France's pieds noirs or Miami's Cubans.

And, short of something going catastrophically wrong, why should there be? This is, after all, a place whose population is made up largely of refugees and their children, perhaps the most truly international city in the world. Its two resources are people and geography. It lives and prospers by their ingenuity and by its position at the mouth of the Pearl River delta, close to the massive expansion zones of southern China.

Now this world-view colony, with more wealth per head of population than its outgoing sovereign power, is returning to a nation whose history has not been international, which has looked down upon and then been humiliated by outside powers and which has gone through the most tumultuous half-century of any major nation since 1945. Given its history, it is not surprising that the government in Beijing lays huge stress on national unity. Given the achievement of the Long March, neither is it surprising that China's rulers have a highly developed fear of opposition, however minimal it may appear.

For China political diversity amounts to dissidence. In Hong Kong, diversity has become the order of the day, with myriad competing political parties, a vocal press spread across the spectrum and a degree of personal freedom that meets any international standard.

That is where the first part of the experiment lies. What happens after this territory, where political and individual liberties have accompanied an unprecedented economic boom, becomes part of the last major nation ruled by the Communist Party? If this is the first vital test for Hong Kong, it also presents China with a puzzle.

Chinese officials speak of Hong Kong as a bridge to the world. But how to balance nationhood and the particularism of the Hong Kong way of life? Will Deng's "one country, two systems" concept turn into a hollow phrase, as the one country dominates the Hong Kong system? Or will it be a model for China's political development, for the return of Taiwan, and an assurance that freedom in China does not simply amount to freedom to get rich?

In another domain Hong Kong is the testing-point for the debate about Asian and universal values. Westerners such as the outgoing governor deny the very existence of Asian values. …

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