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The Last Days of Hong Kong

The reasons for his failure are complex, but they are mostly to do with fear and a crippling sense of futility. The problem is not that Chinese people are by their nature uninterested in politics. This is a self-serving myth propagated by mandarins in Beijing, in London, and, indeed, in Hong Kong itself. But the myth has been sustained for so long in Hong Kong that it has become self-fulfilling; and it also accounts for an astonishing political naiveté, as well as a deep suspicion of the whole business, especially among the worthies who still help to run Hong Kong today.

One of these worthies is the glamorous Dame Lydia Dunn, director of Swire’s, one of the oldest British trading houses, appointed member of the Legislative Council, campaigner for the right of Hong Kong people to live in Britain, wife of the former attorney general, winer and diner of every titled and famous face in town. She is, despite her anglicized name, completely Chinese, although one can hardly tell from her almost faultless Knightsbridge drawl. Perhaps to remind people of her Chineseness, she likes her official photographs to have Chinese screens in the background. She is, in short, a typical product of empire, an honorary native member of the colonial Club.

Dame Lydia, like her fellow worthies, native or British, never believed in democracy for Hong Kong, but, again like many others, she was so shocked by last year’s events in Beijing that now she at least pays lip service to the necessity of some democratic reforms. Her shock was in itself the result of naiveté, for, as she admits, she had had no doubt that China was on the right track and that Hong Kong’s future was assured: What, then, I asked her, about this democracy business?

Well,” she purred, “you see, the problem with the Chinese people is that they are simply too individualistic for a democracy. They have no discipline, which is really most awkward if you have to work for the common good. The Japanese, of course, are quite, quite different. They are a disciplined race and so they can have a democracy.”

I was too baffled to argue with her. But I should not have been surprised by this complete incomprehension of democratic principles. For when it comes to politics, the tycoons and civil servants of capitalist Hong Kong are really not so different from the mandarins in Communist Beijing. Thus, in a fascinating little book of interviews, we hear Simon Li Fuk-sean, former high court judge and drafter of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, expound the following theory:

As a society the people in Hong Kong are politically immature. By not having universal suffrage we keep out a lot of people who make absolutely no contribution to society in Hong Kong, are totally ignorant of any form of government, and are exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

Instead, says Mr. Li, only professional people with “interests to protect” should be elected by their peers to run Hong Kong, for “they, and not the parasites, deserve representation.”4

For years the likes of Dame Lydia, Simon Li, as well as such local tycoons as Y.K. Pao, who made his fortune in shipping, or newspaper editors like Louis Cha, have warned Hong Kong people not to rock the boat, not to push for divisive politics, which would only upset Beijing. After all, wrote Louis Cha in an editorial last June, the Communists “are Chinese. There are good Chinese and bad Chinese, but most Chinese are good.”5 And as Clive James once described so well, whenever there was a good party in China for a visiting British worthy, there was Y.K. Pao (“Powie”), grinning and hand-wringing like an oily compradore. No wonder such people have been so pathetically easy to intimidate. Louis Cha said it all in one sorrowful and all too typical sentence: “We felt we were doing our best to serve the country.”

The worthies are still doing their best. When, some months ago, the Hong Kong Arts Centre wanted to screen a documentary film about China, footage of last year’s massacre in Beijing was censored, because, as a local official put it, “we have to pay attention to the shifting political sensitivities of the Chinese Government.” One of the main galleries in the Arts Centre has been named after Y.K. Pao. His son-in-law, an Austrian worthy called Helmut Sohmen, is chairman of the board.

No wonder, with an establishment like that, that Martin Lee has a hard time, and that few people in Hong Kong wish to stick their necks out when the tycoons and mandarins refuse to stick out theirs. Far wiser, if you have the chance, to take to the planes and move elsewhere.


We are Chinese by race. We love our country with Chinese blood flowing in our bodies. But we don’t like the communist system.”

—Martin Lee, Hong Kong,
February 12, 1990

In the past, Hong Kong people thought that they were colonial citizens. But after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, we knew that Hong Kong would go back to China after 1997 and that Britain would not take care of us any more.”

Letter to the South China Morning Post,
February 13, 1990

Martin Lee faces another, perhaps more intractable obstacle than the cowardice, connivance, and bullying of mandarins: the perennial question of many immigrant communities, especially the overseas Chinese: Where do they feel they belong? It is an important question, for there was never enough identification with the colonial Chinatown, ruled by benevolent British patriarchs, to stimulate the majority of people to engage in politics. This suited the patriarchs in the past, but it suited their subjects as well, for they were pleased enough to have escaped from political mobilization back home. As long as they were left alone, they were content to let the British mandarins govern. The recent half-hearted talk about democracy from the patriarchs themselves—who feel they must give their Chinese subjects some hope, even if only on paper, now that the British are gearing up to leave—must sound decidedly hollow to the Hong Kong Chinese, and devious to the Beijing mandarins, who had counted on a neat transfer of power from one authoritarian government to another. That is what they meant after all by Hong Kong staying the same.

To develop a political identity, people must feel a sense of continuity, of a shared past, but, more importantly, a shared future for which they can be responsible, as citizens, not subjects. This is precisely what is missing in Hong Kong. For once, Dame Lydia hit it right on the button: “Apart from lunatics, condemned prisoners, and small children, Hong Kong people must be the only people in the world who seem to have no right to decide their own fate.”6 Political deals are negotiated over their heads, and their more critical representatives are dismissed and sometimes insulted in London and Beijing—Martin Lee’s protest activities have been branded as “counterrevolutionary,” and he claims to have been told in Beijing that even if he were elected after 1997, he would not be allowed to be part of any government.

So who in this colony (tactfully called “territory” in the local press) do the Chinese residents think they are? Where do their loyalties lie? Racially and culturally, there is no question that they feel Chinese, sometimes defensively, sometimes aggressively so. The Chineseness of the overseas Chinese kung-fu found its most popular expression in the movies featuring Bruce Lee, a native of San Francisco, who rose to stardom in Hong Kong. In one of his early films, entitled Fists of Fury, ethnic pride is the main theme of the story, set in Shanghai in the early 1930s.

Lee plays a member of a kung fu school whose master is murdered by a gang of evil Japanese, who add insult to injury by stamping on the master’s picture and offering a calligraphy, which reads: “The Sick People of Asia.” In the rest of the film, Lee redresses the insult by showing the evil Japanese what’s what, and not just the Japanese but also the white folks, in the form of an odious Russian, whom the Chinese hero, his magnificent torso bared to the waist, hacks and kicks and pummels so convincingly that there can be no question left in anybody’s mind about the superiority of Chinese manhood.

The usual racial slights are rather crudely rehearsed, including the infamous sign outside the Shanghai park: “Chinese and dogs not allowed.” When Lee’s entrance is barred by the most grotesque-looking Indian the casting director could find, he demolishes the sign with a high kick and, while he is at it, demolishes a bunch of Japanese in kimonos too. The most evil character of all is, however, neither Japanese nor Caucasian, but a Chinese collaborator called Wu, whose toadying to the wicked Japanese comes to a symbolic climax when he is forced at a geisha party to “walk like a Chinese,” that is, on all fours, doggy-style. Naturally, Lee knows how to deal with Wu: he beats him to death and hangs him from a lamppost.

Once in a while racial defensiveness breaks into racist aggression, not only in fantasy but in fact. The hostility toward the Vietnamese refugees, huddled in their ghastly prison camps in Hong Kong, is a case in point. To be sure, their arrival in large numbers poses a problem for a small congested place like Hong Kong, but to hear Cantonese schoolchildren protest in front of TV cameras against sending Vietnamese refugee children to local schools, because “they stink,” and to hear civic leaders virtually begging the British to send the refugees back to Vietnam, is to lose fast one’s sympathy for the plight of the Hong Kong Chinese themselves. And to observe, as I did recently, Cantonese accusing the Vietnamese of being “noisy” is to enter the realm of absurdity, for whatever the Cantonese virtues may be, silence is not one of them.

To be Chinese, then, is not the same as to be a citizen of China, but the relationship with the motherland is complicated, vague, and wide-open to political manipulation. “China,” wrote a Chinese-American in a Hong Kong magazine,

is a cultural entity which flows incessantly, like the Yellow River, from its source all the way to the present time, and from there to the boundless future. This is the basic and unshakable belief in the mind of every Chinese. It is also the strongest basis for Chinese nationalism. No matter which government is in power, people will not reject China, for there is always hope for a better future a hundred or more years from now.

China, in other words, is both real and utopian. To engage in politics in Hong Kong, indeed, in all overseas Chinese communities, almost always means politics in China. The average Chinese restaurant owner in San Francisco or Vancouver may not have been interested in American or Canadian politics (“as long as he was able to make money”), but when it concerned the struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists, he became passionately interested, for it involved the future of China. When that future is at stake, the racial, cultural, and political merge in a sometimes combustible mix.

  1. 4

    Gerd Balke ed., Hong Kong Voices, (Hong Kong: Longman, 1989).

  2. 5

    Ming Pao, June 13, 1989.

  3. 6

    Speech at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, June 30, 1989.

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