Hong Kong has never been more at a crossroads with One Country, Two Systems than it is now. So to understand more, I recently delved back into the past with Steve Tsang’s 1997 narrative, Hong Kong: An Appointment With China (I. B. Tauris, 1997).
On a personal level, I never noticed any political interest in Hong Kong when I lived there twenty years ago, apart from Tiananmen protests each spring. Sure, there was a brain drain before I arrived in 1990, but I always thought that was more economically-driven than anything else.
So it was fascinating to read what Tsang wrote just before the Handover almost 20 years ago. His book is dense with the historical background of the Handover, starting way back in 1841. Throughout the book, he references the Kowloon Walled City and the yamen there that belonged to China throughout British rule in Hong Kong. It was fascinating to read about the yamen and how that kept Hong Kong connected to China even with the latter wasn’t really interested in Hong Kong.
The other thing that interested me was that the whole democratic system in Hong Kong just before and after the Handover was a fluke and got in there because China didn’t understand how Hong Kong was run and wasn’t really concerned about the nitty gritty at the time. Talks about the Handover started in 1982 and the Joint Declaration was signed in 1984, both of which were years before Deng’s famous southern tour to develop China.
David Wilson was Governor when I first moved to Hong Kong and the Handover seemed so far away. (The Basic Law had just been ratified, but it was devised by China. The UK had very little say in it.) When I returned a few years later, Chris Patten had arrived as the last Governor of Hong Kong and even though the Handover was still several years away, it was all people were talking about. That and the reforms Patten was aggressively trying to push through. China was not happy.
At the end of the book, Tsang has some advice for Hong Kong. China never intended to give Hong Kong democracy, so if Hong Kong people understand that, they won’t get much trouble from China. Of course, no one back in 1997 could see how quickly China would change. There wasn’t social media back then, there wasn’t the wealth there is now, and China wasn’t the superpower it is now. No one could have predicted all these changes. Plus, Hong Kong had been supporting China for decades, but that all changed since the Handover.
That’s the difference between now and then.