Witness to History

China Scholar Ross Writes From Hong Kong

Prof. Robert Ross (Political Science), a China scholar, was in Hong Kong on July 1 for the historic transition of the longtime British colony to Chinese rule. He sent Chronicle the following account.

In Hong Kong, where an excuse to enjoy a good meal and hold a lavish party is never hard to find, the people turned the five-day weekend marking the transition to Chinese rule into a party for huigui , as the handover is universally called.

But beneath the veneer of celebration, more complex emotions were at work. At one level, the Chinese people of Hong Kong seemed truly pleased to watch Queen Elizabeth's yacht sail out of the harbor. The British provided good government, but for nearly 150 years they ruled as Western imperialists on Chinese soil and the Hong Kong people look forward to running their own affairs, even if it means sacrificing independence to Chinese sovereignty. As patriots, they are proud that China has ended one of the most humiliating chapters of its long history.

Hong Kong is optimistic about the economic opportunities that huigui presents. For 150 years, there was a "glass ceiling" over the careers of Chinese. Foreigners filled senior positions in government, multinational corporations, and philanthropic and non-profit organizations. Being Chinese was an asset for developing connections in China, but to join the Hong Kong elite required overseas connections.

Now, a glass ceiling is coming down on foreigners as Chinese retake Hong Kong. There is even a new term for British now seeking jobs in Hong Kong: FILTH, short for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."

The business community expects that reduced barriers between Hong Kong and China will stimulate the economy. Even in the aftermath of huigui , the stock and real estate markets have continued to rise. Businesses are confident that Hong Kong's location, its dynamic business class and its familiarity with mainland culture will position it well to benefit from China's economic boom.

Prof. Robert Ross (Political Science)

But huigui is not all celebration. Britain was an occupying imperialist power, but it was also a benign power. There was a genuine sorrow at seeing Gov. Chris Patten, well-liked as a man of the people, depart Hong Kong. In contrast, Chinese Communist Party leader Jiang Zernin arrived in Hong Kong with a grim face, foreshadowing an equally grim future. It was unsettling to wake up the next morning to see the Chinese communist flag over government buildings.

Most Hong Kong people do not expect that the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will change their daily lives. They do not expect violent repression or demonstrations.

But there is dismay at China's abolition of the democratically elected Legislative Council. Democracy is new to Hong Kong, but it is widely appreciated. Memories of the 1989 Beijing Massacre remain strong and there is a near universal expectation that China will curtail political freedoms. People expect that editorials and op-ed columns will become less controversial and editors will "spike" provocative stories. Secondary school and university courses may sanitize their reading lists. Many feel that self-censorship has already begun.

Hong Kong is famous for its effective civil service and its impartial legal system. China is famous for corruption and lawlessness. Mainland officials and money will bring corruption to Hong Kong. The rule of law will erode.

Uncertainty best characterizes Hong Kong after huigui . Perhaps Beijing will allow Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong and Chinese leaders have said all the right things to instill confidence. Despite the dire predictions of the Western media, they managed huigui without a glitch. For their part, democracy leaders conducted orderly and restrained post- huigui demonstrations.

Martin Lee, Hong Kong's most influential democracy activist, said that until he sees otherwise, he will assume that China will keep its word that Hong Kong will not change, and that he will continue to demand democracy.

Hong Kong people share Lee's view. They will go on with their lives and hope nothing changes.

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