Ten Years After the Return to China Hong Kong Reinvents Itself, Yet Again

On July 1, Hong Kong will have been under Chinese rule for ten years. Can the capitalist pearl continue to shine under Communist Party rule?

By Erich Follath

The red mailboxes with the image of the British crown were removed, the last batch of stamps with the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II was printed and 1,200 portraits of the monarch were removed from government offices. All evidence of the Queen had been removed by the time the final act began, exactly 10 years ago: Britain's farewell ceremony in Hong Kong, the colonial power's grandest goodbye.

July 1 marks the 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China.

July 1 marks the 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China.

Many wept when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time. Chris Patten, the last British governor, who had introduced democracy at the last minute in Hong Kong after around 150 years of colonialism and who was disparaged in Beijing as a "whore" in return for the gesture, fought back his tears while his wife and their three daughters wept freely. Even Prince Charles, the guest of honor, pressed a handkerchief to his eyes as he boarded the royal yacht, the "Britannia," turning around to wave one last time.

It was shortly after midnight on July 1, 1997 when the representatives of the old order left Hong Kong, whose name means "fragrant harbor." The jewel of the Empire, with its $69 billion in foreign currency reserves, was handed over to the communist rulers of the People's Republic of China, the most sumptuous dowry since Cleopatra. The symbolism of the moment could hardly hide its historic significance, heralding the decline of an old world power and the rise of a new one.

Most of all, the sky wept. It had begun raining heavily on the day before the handover. The heavy rain turned into downpours and, ultimately, a deluge. The superstitious Chinese glanced nervously at the black clouds. What they saw seemed to them an evil omen: The new communist rulers of this capitalist model city, built on leased land, were being greeted with torrential rain, a warning from the gods. And it poured and poured, for hours and days on end.

Master Joseph Wong, an expert in the Chinese art of feng shui, also issued dark predictions as he bent over his geomancer tables, bathed in the light of an old lamp at the Temple Street night market. "A baby, born at the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1997, will face great difficulties in his first few years," he said. "The young boy is obstinate and doesn't fit in. He will suffer from the arguments between his guardians, especially because they come from different worlds."

In truth, their differences could not have been greater. The baby was a bastard, born to the British lion and the Chinese dragon; a child of two worlds, whose birth was bathed in the light from the flashbulbs of the international press. The offspring was given the awkward name of the SAR, or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China. The baby's godparents were Deng Xiaoping, Beijing's Communist Party patriarch, and Margaret Thatcher, London's conservative prime minister. In the mid-1980s, the two had gone over the heads of Hong Kong residents to negotiate an agreement for the period following the expiration of Great Britain's lease.

The unconventional concept was dubbed "One Country - Two Systems." For 50 years following the transfer, Hong Kong would be allowed to retain its capitalist lifestyle, its own currency and its own tax system, as well as form its own government with "a high degree of autonomy." All of this, of course, was based on the premise that Hong Kong would be an "inalienable part of China," and that its giant parent would control foreign policy and defense. Hugo Restall, the editor-in-chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review, called it the "craziest political construct in the entire world."

Could this one-of-a-kind experiment succeed? Wouldn't Beijing's party officials be hopelessly out of their league when confronted with the job of running this capital of capitalism? Hong Kong was, at the time, the world's largest container port, its fifth-largest banking center, had the world's seventh-largest stock exchange and an average per capita income almost 30 times as high as in the "motherland." How could its new owners, used only to driving horse-drawn carts and tanks, suddenly chauffeur a luxury limousine without driving it into a wall?

Or was it possible that this Hong Kong could actually infect the People's Republic with its viruses of freedom and legal certainty, and perhaps influence China more than it was influenced by the communist giant? Could the tail possibly wag the dog?


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