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Holding Out in Hong Kong

Kowloon Tong

by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 243 pp., $23.00

Hong Kong Remembers

by Sally Blyth and Ian Wotherspoon, Introduction by the Rt. Honorable the Baroness Thatcher
Oxford University Press, 285 pp., $39.95

Red Flag over Hong Kong

by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, by David Newman, by Alvin Rabushka
Chatham House, 196 pp., $17.95 (paper)

The Hong Kong Advantage

by Michael J. Enright, by Edith E. Scott, by David Dodwell
Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $29.95


The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”

—Confucius: Analects1

Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine modeled after the London Tatler, I was reminded of a story I once heard about the Rothschild house in Paris. When Victor Rothschild visited the Avenue de Marigny in 1944, to see what was left of his cousin’s mansion after four years of German occupation, he found not only Baron Robert’s old butler, Felix, on the premises, but also a fat guestbook kept by the Luftwaffe officers to record their social life. He saw to his consternation that their French guests were exactly the same people whom the Rothschilds had entertained before the war.

The Hong Kong Tatler celebrates connections, or guanxi in Chinese. There, between ads for choice London real estate and jeweled Swiss watches, were the same smiling faces I had seen in the Hong Kong gossip press before, often in the presence of British grandees—rich, rather overdressed people with names like Pansy Ho, Oscar Chow, Ambrose So, Charmaine Koo, and Ruby Wong. But something had changed. Gone were most of the British grandees. The new faces, grinning furiously above their Italian ties, included instead the likes of Zhou Nan, the highest Chinese official in Hong Kong. Zhou was an interrogator of American POWs during the Korean War. He is now the head of Xinhua, or the New China News Agency, the de facto Chinese embassy, and one of the toughest (and some say nastiest) negotiators during the transition of Hong Kong from a British colony to a Special Administrative Region of China.

It is but one sign of the Hong Kong business elite adapting to a shift in the wind. There are others. Hong Kong Tatlerites who spent much of their lives ingratiating themselves with the British now run to Beijing for patronage, and sometimes drop their titles on the way. Sir Sze-Yuen Chung was a British-educated businessman and trusted official in the colonial administration. “Sir S.Y.” has made many appearances in the Hong Kong Tatler. In the early 1980s he argued fervently in London for the continuation of British rule in Hong Kong. He used to serve as an official advisor to British governors. Now he is on two committees appointed by Beijing to prepare for Chinese sovereignty. When the future Chief Executive, selected by Beijing, announced that Chung would act as his councilor too, the “Sir” was quietly dropped from Chung’s name.

Dropping British airs is no bad thing, of course; in fact, it is some-thing of a relief. But the adoption of Chinese airs in their place often brings a new form of humbug. The giggly trendsetter of Hong Kong’s neo-Chinoiserie is a shrewd businessman (and habitual Hong Kong Tatlerite) named David Tang. Known as “Tango” to his British friends, he smokes (and markets) Cuban cigars, wears (and markets) silk Chinese robes, brays like Bertie Wooster, and parties with British royalty as well as Chinese commissars.2 His main establishment in Hong Kong, the China Club, is a kind of post-modern joke on colonial Hong Kong, or indeed on Chinese history. Located in the Bank of China building, a rather fine mainland Chinese property, it is made to look like a Shanghai club in the 1930s, except that pictures from the Cultural Revolution and other Maoist kitsch decorate the walls. (Just imagine: a German Club in Vienna with Hitleriana; well, yes, I can imagine, but with a less tony clientele.) At the entrance of the China Club are photographs of Tango with British and Chinese grandees: Tango with Governor Chris Patten, Tango with Michael Heseltine, Tango with Zhou Nan. Tango has just opened a new China Club in Beijing.

This, then, is the jokey side of Sinification. The Chineseness of the designated Chief Executive of Hong Kong, C.H. Tung, is no less theatrical perhaps, but more serious in its consequences. Tung is a British-educated shipping magnate, a typical member of the Hong Kong business elite, a brash fixer with guanxi, who used to donate large sums of money to the British Conservative Party. Like Sir S.Y. Chung, he served as a councilor to the British governor. But China has been kind to Tung. In the early 1980s Beijing bailed his family business out of serious financial trouble, and last year the Chinese government decided he was the right man to govern Hong Kong after June 30.

Tung, who used to show off his common touch by talking about his favorite British soccer team, responded by invoking a host of so-called Chinese values. Freedom of assembly would have to be limited, he announced. “Derogatory remarks” about Chinese leaders wouldn’t be tolerated. Ideas which hurt “the feelings of the Chinese people,” such as Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, would have to be banned. Indeed, he personally found such ideas “intolerable”—“as a Chinese man.” Foreign links with, or donations to local political groups would be banned as well. The recent attempts of the leading Hong Kong democrat, Martin Lee, to get American support for continued civil liberties in Hong Kong were denounced by Tung as “bad-mouthing Hong Kong.” Tung wants to govern Hong Kong in a Chinese spirit of “consensus”: “An emphasis on obligations to the community rather than the rights of the individual” are “the values we hold dear.” 3

Restricting the political rights of their Chinese subjects was of course also a value held dear by British colonial governments in the past, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, when Maoists and Nationalists threatened to cause trouble. British governors and diplomats themselves shared the Chinese mandarin’s love of secrecy. The phrase for the British system of government was “consultative colonialism”: native worthies were consulted, the British decided. Although civil liberties, such as free speech, were respected in practice, it was only in 1991—in the aftermath of Tiananmen—that a Bill of Rights was passed in Hong Kong to lift some of the restrictions on funding political parties and staging demonstrations. That same year saw the first direct elections for the Legislative Council (Legco), and wider reforms were announced for the Legco elections of 1995. The government in Beijing protested instantly against these measures and insisted that the old colonial order be restored. China wished to take over a colony, not a budding democracy.

True to colonial form, many Hong Kong Tatlerites who voted for the Bill of Rights in the Legislative Council in 1991 are ardent “patriots” now, defending not only Tung’s Chinese values, but also Beijing’s right to replace the first fully elected legislature with an appointed one. The masters will change, but the eagerness of some colonial subjects to flatter them remains unaltered. In a typical case of colonial confusion, Tung’s designated Secretary of Justice, Elsie Leung, justified future clamps on criticism of China by saying that it was illegal to say “Down with the Queen” now, just as it would be illegal to say “Down with Li Peng” after June 30. (Prime Minister Li Peng, by the way, is not of royal blood, but the adopted son of the late Zhou Enlai, which to some people might amount to the same thing.)

Chinese values do not, however, adequately explain the peculiar alliance between mainland Communists and the local tycoons, who still want Hong Kong to be run as a profitable colony, albeit under a different master. Opportunism is part of it, to be sure. Most Hong Kong tycoons have been cultivating guanxi with the Communist patrons for years. Even as he stashed much of his money for safekeeping in the Caribbean, the property billionaire Li Ka-shing (another former benefactor of the British Tories) put more than half a million dollars into a foundation to counter “inaccurate information” in the press, that is to say, critical views about Hong Kong’s hand-over to China. So did the gambling magnate Dr. Stanley Ho, and the film mogul Sir Run-Run Shaw.

Foreign old hands have joined this bandwagon too. A British public relations man in Hong Kong, named Ted Thomas, started a campaign in April to correct the “appalling negative coverage” by foreign journalists who pay “disproportionate attention” to democracy and human rights. Thomas knows from “years of experience” that Chinese people are not interested in democracy.4 This is what most businessmen think, even though Hong Kong Chinese academics, lawyers, and politicians are protesting against C.H. Tung’s plans to curtail civil rights.5 Books that reflect the businessmen’s view tend to be optimistic about Hong Kong. The authors of The Hong Kong Advantage, for example, believe that if Hong Kong continues to be governed by a form of “consultative colonialism,” it will go from strength to strength. Books that stress the need for democratic politics are pessimistic. Even though Red Flag over Hong Kong, to mention one example under review, suffers from a shrill tone, and shows too much confidence in weird charts that seek to predict the future, I think the pessimists have the better arguments. Democracy might well be the only way to ensure that the wrong kind of politics doesn’t mess up business—among other things.

Gordon Wu, a property developer and another familiar face featured in the April Hong Kong Tatler, was a typical optimist when I met him, in the early 1990s. The Hong Kong government had just announced its plan to build a new airport. Wu told Beijing it was a colonial scam to enrich British business. He, Gordon Wu, could do a much better job. Here was a fine example of combining business with patriotism. As it happens, Wu failed to land the deal, but going to Beijing with tales of British plots feeds Chinese paranoia and tangles politics up with business in a way Hong Kong businessmen might live to regret.

Tycoons and Marxist commissars are bound by more than opportunism, however. They share a deep conviction that everything can be reduced to economics, and that liberal politics is a hindrance, at best. As the distinguished lawyer Gladys Li put it to me: “China’s view of Hong Kong is business, business, business.” Call it dialectical materialism if you wish: Hong Kong is to be run for maximum profit, to benefit the local magnates, as well as Chinese enterprises owned, run, or favored by the Chinese state and other patriotic institutions—the People’s Liberation Army already has a stake in up to twenty thousand businesses in China and Hong Kong, ranging from pharmaceutical companies to luxury brothels. When the Hong Kong government, led by a British Tory politician, suggested a few years ago that the welfare budget should be increased, the Chinese government protested vigorously and the budget was slashed. When a new pension scheme was proposed in 1994, Zhou Nan accused the British imperialists of undermining capitalism in Hong Kong.

  1. 1

    From Simon Leys’s translation, published this year by W.W. Norton.

  2. 2

    A new branch of Tango’s shop, Shanghai Tang, will be opened in New York later this year.

  3. 3

    Reported by Jonathan Mirsky in The Times of London, December 18, 1996.

  4. 4

    The Sunday Times of London, April 27, 1997.

  5. 5

    In mid-May there were signs that C.H. Tung was taking protesters seriously enough to reconsider his plans for limiting civil liberties.

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