Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hong Kong

This is yet another continuation post to the two previous, detailing some of my impressions about China stemming from our recent vacation there. Specifically, I'm interested in the special case of Hong Kong.

Though obviously a Chinese city, it was a part of the British Empire--governed and administered by the British--for a hundred years until being handed back over to Chinese control in 1997. And so it's always had a hybrid feel, a city of (mostly) Chinese people living under British ideas. And under that working arrangement it has attained an iconic status, like New York or London.

But my sense is that there has always been some tension there between West and East, and the handover of the territory back to Chinese control was the subject of much angst: China felt the territory was rightfully theirs (taken from them by unfair treaties) and most of the residents did not consider themselves to be Chinese and were very happy governing themselves. As an airline person, I remember reading about Cathay Pacific's concerns that Communist China would not honor the sovereignty of the profitable and thriving business at handover, and I believe serious consideration was given to moving the headquarters of the airline out of the region.

I found myself lounging on my hotel bed in the Tuve Hotel in Hong Kong reading a New York Times article about just this subject the day before we left to return home. The gist of the article was that Chinese authorities promised to honor Hong Kong's independence after control was returned to China--what China calls "one country, two systems"--but that, unfortunately, is not really how things are unfolding 20 years on.

I've always held Hong Kong in special regard, but this is based on my visitor's impressions rather than any scholarly expertise. On this trip we spent five days in Beijing and a couple days in Xian (another Chicago-sized city of which I've barely heard), and like all other major Chinese cities these places are abuzz with construction and growth and activity and change. Hong Kong is too, of course, though in that case it doesn't represent a change from the status quo. The larger sense is that China is a country massively on the move. And so Beijing very likely thinks it can manage growth and business quite well, thanks, and perhaps that there's no need or justification for Hong Kong's special status. More than this, to acknowledge Hong Kong's special spark--to acknowledge that its differences contribute to its spark--is to imply that other Chinese cities could follow the same model. That's clearly not immediately in the cards--although modern China is hardly recognizable from what was here 50 years ago. The NYT article says that some in China feel that HK suffers from "too much democracy." Residents of the city, naturally, resist this characterization.

So where does that leave Hong Kong? Right now, kind of stuck. Beijing has actively removed several democratically-elected politicians of whom it does not approve, and even gone so far as to abduct under cover of darkness those--liberal booksellers, for example--it considers to be threatening. All of this is a nightmare for residents who having let the fox into the henhouse are really left with few options.

Meanwhile, several massive projects are on hold because the two sides cannot agree on how to proceed. One has to think this all leads inevitably toward their not being "the two sides."

Much as I love HK, I find I'm torn. As a socialist, I think putting the reins on capitalism is sensible and utile. And I'm unqualified to see how much of HK's brilliance is due to laissez-faire economic policy--and I certainly don't KNOW that HK will be a different or less attractive place when Beijing gets its way. But OTOH I feel like people ought to be able to determine their fates, and it's hard for me to see how Beijing's control will benefit HK or its citizens. In any case, Beijing seems unlikely to back down--especially when they're doing so well in other places. I fear--and I'm obviously not alone in this--a place I love will be snuffed out and turned into something much less vibrant.

At the very least one feels that Beijing cannot be taken at its word, and that no success in HK will shake the elite of the Communist Party from their positions of power.

No comments: