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The Last Days of Hong Kong

It is also true that Chinese connoisseurs always tended to make fetishes of the ancient, which explains, perhaps, why China has the oldest industry in fake antiques in the world. But fake, to a Western ear, has a pejorative sound not entirely appropriate to the common Chinese view that a good fake can be admired in its own right.

Instead of eternal cities, China had eternally shifting cities. With a new dynasty often came a new capital, whose layout was based on geomancy and other signs of auspiciousness. These seats of administrative power sometimes lasted about as long as the dynasties that built them were blessed with Heaven’s mandate. Thus once great cities—Ch’ang-an, K’ai-feng, Hangchow—are now provincial towns, with only a few monuments, frequently rebuilt through the ages, as reminders of past glory.

Most Chinese capitals were in the north or center of China, in the heartland of Chinese civilization. None was ever in the deep south, long considered a swampy region filled with ghosts and other undesirables. Trade is what made the southern coastal cities tick, not bureaucratic power. But commerce and cosmopolitanism were not highly valued by Chinese governments; on the contrary, merchants were strictly controlled and contacts with outsiders limited, if not forbidden. Mandarins, in the name of the Son of Heaven, ruled China, and they kept the businessmen firmly under their long-nailed thumbs. In its entire history China had truly cosmopolitan cities only twice: between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, during the T’ang and Sung dynasties, and again, from the latter years of imperial China to the beginning of what is still called, without irony intended, Liberation.

Ch’ang-an, the capital during the T’ang dynasty, was a center of trade with central Asia. Official control was relaxed, and business was good. Then, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the imperial governments put the lid back on. As William Skinner observed in his fascinating study of Chinese cities, the impact was especially severe on the southeastern coast, which is precisely where foreigners arrived in the nineteenth century to blast China open again.3 They were led in this enterprise by the English and Scottish opium pushers who settled in a rocky little pirates’ lair called Hong Kong. Once more, Chinese merchants, stifled and disdained for centuries by the supercilious mandarins, were able to escape their official leash, and, protected more or less by foreign laws, were free to make money in Amoy, Fuzhou, Tianjin, Shanghai, and, of course, Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before Shanghai became the most cosmopolitan city in Chinese history.

Some Chinese were very rich as a result, many were better off than before, and many remained miserably poor. The pursuit of wealth and happiness led to the usual things: well-organized crime, well-stocked brothels, and well-greased palms, but also the richest cultural life China had seen for centuries and, despite wars, famines, and terrorism, the freest marketplace for ideas Chinese had ever known. One of these ideas was Marxism.

Naturally, when a new breed of Chinese mandarins took upon themselves Heaven’s mandate in 1949, all this had to go, except the Marxism, of course. Destruction is easier than one sometimes thinks. Whenever I enter the battleship-gray headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank to cash a check, and watch in wonder the silent efficiency of this modern capitalist beehive, Hong Kong appears, for a moment, indestructible. But in Shanghai, once the government put its mind to it in 1952, it took exactly two months to turn the great metropolis into what one observer described as a dead city. (Pol Pot worked even faster, but then Phnom Penh is not Shanghai.) Businessmen were systematically humiliated, persecuted, and above all squeezed of their assets, which, according to the correct line of the day, they had “stolen from the people.” One of the many curiosities of China after Mao is that you can still hear, in remote villages of the poor Northwest, traces of the Shanghai dialect, spoken by the children and grandchildren of businessmen booted out of their city thirty-eight years ago.

Hong Kong might not be treated in quite the same way. But when people speak blithely of China’s interest, they do well to remind themselves that China plucked its interest from a thriving business city before, by plunder. It is also useful to remember that however wellmeaning or, to use a favorite word in this part of the world, sincere, China’s mandarins may be, and however much they speak of Open Doors and Reforms, their understanding of commercial enterprise is more akin to that of the imperial mandarins than to the views of Milton Friedman, or even John Kenneth Galbraith. The traditional instinct is not to let the flowers of business bloom by encouraging the free pursuit of riches, but to control and to squeeze. Many Hong Kong businessmen already are paying their dues by donating vast sums to the motherland to curry favor with officialdom. The more they pay, the more will be demanded, for this only confirms to the mandarin mind that business is there to be fleeced.

Hong Kong and Shanghai are the peculiar products of historical events over which a feeble, decadent, insular China had little control, and the humiliation of being forced by foreigners to concede extraterritorial rights on Chinese soil is still keenly felt in Beijing. When Mrs. Thatcher, still flushed with her victory over the “Argies,” stumbled into Beijing in 1982 to convince Deng of the validity of the nineteenth-century treaties, Deng answered with expletives, which were, I believe, deleted from the record, but would have made even the Iron Lady blush. Hong Kong was promised autonomy nonetheless, which sounded very well on paper, but before reaching for their bottles of champagne people might have paused to contemplate the fact that virtually throughout their history the rulers of China did everything in their power to deny their cities precisely what Hong Kong has been promised.

The freebooting, vice-ridden, cosmopolitan, mercenary, wonderful urban bitch goddesses—Berlin, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong—are never much liked by those who live in the hinterlands, but the hatred, awe, and envy inspired by Hong Kong is often extreme. Intellectuals in Beijing usually express a disdain for its empty materialism, its lack of culture, and the rough-and-ready manners of its mainly Cantonese inhabitants. To most ordinary Chinese Hong Kong is a wealthy Xanadu, so far away it hardly seems real. To millions of southern Chinese it is the place they would rush to, if only they could. And if they are lucky enough to live close by, they watch Hong Kong television and ask their friends and relatives who have made it to Xanadu for money, electronic gadgets, anything they can carry. To provincial Communist cadres Hong Kong is a place for freebies. You see them walking about in groups, in their badly cut suits and pudding-bowl haircuts, gawking with open mouths at the shops, the buildings, the restaurants, hoping perhaps that one day all this will be theirs. To the mandarins in Beijing, often men from China’s poor interior, Hong Kong represents everything they loathe: it is southern, urban, subversive, vice-ridden, rich, relatively free, and, above all, full of foreigners and their polluting foreign ways. It is, in short, horribly un-Chinese.

So of course it would be in Beijing’s interest to keep its hands off Hong Kong, but if the men who rule China today were to follow their instincts, they would stamp on the bitch goddess, after having picked the last bit of meat off her carcass. Few tears would be shed over Hong Kong’s demise, for it was never a Chinese heirloom to be cherished, but rather a monument to a past that still hurts. Why then, you might well ask, hasn’t China pounced before? What has kept the mandarins so long from booting the Brits out and grabbing what is theirs?

There is a possible answer to this, which sounds paradoxical, but isn’t. The reason for Deng’s decision to take back Hong Kong was, I believe, the result of his Open Door policy. Mao never wanted Hong Kong back, for the colonial city was hidden from sight, a Chinatown that was in China, but not of it. The vice, the subversion, the spiritual pollution, never penetrated China enough to be a threat. This only began once China’s door was ajar, and Deng realized that the only way to impose control was to turn Chinatown back into a Chinese town, subservient once again to the mandarins in Beijing. Yes, he wants Hong Kong to make money but he also wants to suppress some of the very ideas and institutions that produce the wealth: Deng’s dilemma in a nutshell.

Alas—and after thousands of years of subservience, who can blame them?—most Chinese need little encouragement to fall into line with officialdom, particularly when the spirit of patriotism is invoked. And with the unfailing accuracy of an experienced acupuncturist, Beijing has time and again managed to prick the one raw nerve in this hard-bitten community of refugees and their offspring: patriotism—the need for a sense of the past, the need to feel Chinese.


Chinese authorities yesterday claimed that Mr. Lee Cheuk-yan, the Hong Kong pro-democracy lobbyist who was detained in Beijing, had confessed to supporting ‘counter-revolutionary organisations.’ Mr. Lee, a senior official in the Christian Industrial Committee, was allowed to return to Hong Kong on Thursday after he was ‘educated’ by police in the mainland capital, Radio Beijing said.”

South China Morning Post,
June 1989

There are few more melancholy sights than Martin Lee, QC, standing on a platform in the rain, manfully singing “We Shall Overcome” with a crowd of three hundred fellow crusaders for democracy in Hong Kong. His cause is just, his criticisms of London and Beijing are unfailingly correct, his methods always peaceful and polite, which makes it all the sadder that he appears to be fighting for a lost cause. Hong Kong was promised direct elections by various representatives of the British government, who were, however, always carefully vague about the practicalities; Beijing doesn’t want direct elections to take place, or only to such a limited degree that they will be virtually meaningless. According to the just completed Basic Law, less than half the legislature will be directly elected by as late as 1999. Although Beijing has made it clear that the Basic Law can no longer be changed, London still promises that something might be worked out. The people of Hong Kong, who have seen too many promises made and broken, maintain a sullen silence.

Martin Lee is not, a professional politician. He is a highly successful barrister. And he showed little interest in politics until six years ago, when he realized that without elections Hong Kong would be bereft of an accountable local government, without which the future so-called Special Autonomous Region would have no protection against the whims of Beijing’s mandarins. He is of course absolutely right. And if you ask many ordinary people in Hong Kong, they agree that he is right. Indeed, he is quite a popular and much respected figure. And yet, there he is, with the long-suffering face of a sensitive camel, bravely singing songs to no more than a few hundred people.

  1. 3

    Skinner, The City in Late Imperial China.

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