Hong Kong's future will be Chinese, but what will be the residual influence of British traditions? As 1997 approaches, it remains unclear how much political and economic autonomy Beijing will tolerate. Ending the impasse between Britain and China could have some benefits, but lasting prosperity requires that Hong Kong retain its cosmopolitan spirit, says Philip Bowringby Philip Bowring / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Hong Kong has little time for history. That is perhaps just as well. Historic buildings get in the way of developers’ profits. History books remind the Chinese that this city semi-state was born out of China’s humiliation by western imperialism.
But a sense of history must be the starting point for any soothsaying about 1997 and beyond. Will this date signal the end of something remarkable? Or a new beginning for what will be one of the world’s greatest cities for centuries to come? Will this date, etched in the consciousness of Hong Kong as surely as 1066 is a part of the English psyche, prove a non-event? Will it see an almost seamless transition from 150 years of British rule to the 50 years of continuity and autonomy promised by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong?
Hong Kong’s future will belong to China, but important to the evolution of the next 50 years will be the extent of the survival of British-derived institutions. Will Hong Kong be like India, where law, parliament, even railway timetables are not so different from 1947? Or will it be like Aden? It matters not because these institutions are intrinsically admirable, but because they are part of what Hong Kong is and wants to remain.
For those looking for historic parallels as a guide to the future, there is a range to choose from. There is Shanghai, now making a high-rise comeback as China’s financial capital, but still far from its 1930s zenith as a glamorous, progressive international city. There is Tangier, with its hashish and homosexuals; but it has faded so far now that most people have forgotten that it ever was an international city. Closer to home, there is British-created Chinese-operated Singapore. It survived joining and being thrown out of Malaysia to remain southeast Asia’s most prosperous place-and one now acting as a tribune for “neo-Confucian” values, while making its living as a home from home for western companies.
Of these choices, it is worth looking at Singapore more closely. Its experience goes to the root of what may well be Hong Kong’s biggest problem: autonomy. Whatever one’s view of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s ex-prime minister, there is no doubt that after Singapore’s 1965 expulsion from Malaysia, he single-mindedly pursued what he saw as the country’s best interests. Lee was prepared to ride roughshod over neighbourly sensitivities, whether in pursuit of specific objectives, or just to underline the fact that small, prickly, Chinese Singapore would not be bullied by large Malay, Muslim neighbours.