Opinion Politics & Protest

HK20: Pessimism and hope in Hong Kong, 20 years after the city’s return to China

Before the handover, when there were 7,000 foreign journalists in town and everyone who was anyone had already been interviewed, one of them got round to me.

Why me, I wondered. The reporter, a gentleman from Toronto, said he had heard I had an unusually pessimistic view. I protested. Many people were more pessimistic than me. Where were they? After some thought I suggested Vancouver.

But actually in those days you didn’t have to be very level-headed to be put down as a pessimist, because the official line was so rosy. The British cheerfully supposed that they were leaving a grateful populace; the Chinese, that they were welcoming an eager brood back into the bosom of the motherland. Descriptions of the future were expected to be upbeat. Don’t spoil the party.

hong kong handover 1997 one country

Photo: GovHK.

This was before Philip Tetlock’s sobering exposure of the worthlessness of predictions, however authoritative, about future political and economic events.

But when I was studying history we were frequently warned of the perils of prediction. So I don’t. All I had said, which counted as a 10 on the Eeyore Scale at the time, was that Hong Kong was exchanging one imperial overlord for another, and this would not necessarily be an improvement.

Some people were more explicitly pessimistic than that, some were optimists and a good many admitted to uncertainty. The Economist, as I recall, solved the problem by offering two predictions. One, unkindly dug out of retirement last month, was that Hong Kong would infect China with its taste for freedom. That didn’t come out too well.

The other one, which did, was the metaphor of the boiled frog. This points out that if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out. If you put it in a pot of cold water and heat the pot gradually the dumb frog will sit there until it is cooked.

And that is the way it turned out. Many things have happened which, if you predicted them in 1997, would have had you laughed off the page, accused of questioning China’s sincerity, or hustled off to the nearest mental hospital to have your wits restored to normal.

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Protesters take to the streets in protest against Beijing’s Basic Law interpretation in November. Photo: Mario Sixtus.

Consider the matter of interpretations of the Basic Law. There was, lawyers agreed, a problem with this. If anybody could seek an interpretation, then the Court of Final Appeal would not be final. If only the government could seek an interpretation this would be unfair. The unspoken hope was that there would be no interpretations and the problem would hence not arise.

Nobody even considered the possibility that an interpretation would be issued by the central authorities, unsought by anyone in Hong Kong, on a case which was still being heard in the Court of First Instance.

Also off the piste was the possibility that a judge of the Court of Appeal would insist that a Hong Kong law be interpreted according to civil law principles because they reigned in China.

Or we can consider the matter of autonomy generally. The exact limits of this were far from clear but the original summary had been everything except defence and foreign affairs. Clearly some other exceptions had to be made to reflect China’s sovereignty but these could be exercised sensitively. As for a while they were.

The line now is that appealing to promises of autonomy is an unacceptable attempt to cast aspersions on China’s absolute sovereignty over the territory, which apparently transcends the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law too.

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Police use tear gas to clear protesters from the streets during the 2014 Occupy movement. Photo: P H Yang.

We have come a long way, and not always in a desirable direction.

The other day I was reading a book about the history of the English language and came across a startling passage suggesting that the language itself was “infused with certain values”. These were “an overt concern with accuracy, a liking for hard facts, a careful distinction between facts and opinions, an aversion to emotional display, an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, a preoccupation with fairness and reasonableness, a hostility to exaggeration which often results in understatement, and explicit recognition of the limits of one’s own knowledge.”

Clearly one could overstate the influence of this ideological content. It does not, for example, appear to exercise a great influence over President Trump’s tweets.

But if there is something which Hong Kong people picked up from 150 years of colonial oppression, then this is perhaps it. Certainly it is nonsense to suggest that people were brainwashed to love Colonialism or to hate China.

national education basic law brainwashing

A protest against National Education in 2012. Photo: Wikicommons.

The British Colonial Civil Service was not so foolish as to suppose that inspiring affection was possible. They were periodically reminded that their rule was naturally resented by those on whom it was imposed, and rested on force.

Nor was it a policy to decry the local culture. T. E. Lawrence observed that the French thought the highest possible attainment of their colonial subjects would be to become imitation Frenchmen. British colonialists, on the other hand, admired most those of their subjects who remained obstinately true to their traditional ways.

Personally I am insulated by fortunate circumstances from many of the aspects of life in Hong Kong which rightly offend others – the wealth gap, housing, education, health care, pensions or lack thereof and so on.

This leaves me free to be offended by the amount of bilge we have to put up with. Consider, for example, the Liaison Office dimwit who said that Hong Kong would “never be independent in 1,000 years”.

hong kong localist independence

File photo: Todd Darling.

The short answer to this is that the last empire which said it was going to last 1,000 years was led by the late unlamented Adolf Hitler. Not a good example to follow.

The long answer is that making predictions about the next 1,000 years is a fool’s game. What would you have predicted 1,000 years ago? Times change. Regimes and dynasties come and in due course go.

China’s history features 18 dynasties spread over, to be generous, 5,000 years, giving them on average a little under 300 years each. In the last 1,000 years there were five, so the pace may be picking up a bit. Also, no Communist regime anywhere has succeeded in lasting 100 years yet. So taking a long-term perspective, there’s hope.

HK20: Pessimism and hope in Hong Kong, 20 years after the city's return to China