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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

1.

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.

Hong Kong, says Sir S.Y. Chung in his memoir, included in the useful book Hong Kong Remembers, “has benefitted over the years from the lack of democracy.” He explains that in the late 1950s and 60s there had been demands for a minimum wage for workers, and “if there had been any form of democracy then, the Government would have been under pressure to meet these demands…” I heard similar arguments from various people in Hong Kong in April. Democracy, I was told by a man with strong pro-Beijing sympathies, promotes “welfarism.” The man in question, named Shiu Sin Por, runs a pro-Beijing think tank, sits on various Chinese committees supervising the takeover, and acts as an adviser to the New China News Agency in Hong Kong. He has lived in the US and speaks, or rather shouts, in a quasi-American voice. There he was, then, a Chinese patriot feeding me Beijing’s lines in a Yankee accent: “One man, one vote,” he screeched, “would be the end of Hong Kong! Lots of welfare and high taxes!”

Socialism is the last thing China says it wants to see in Hong Kong. Indeed the mini-constitution, or Basic Law, of the future Special Administrative Region rules it out: “The socialist system shall not be practised in Hong Kong.” What Beijing and the tycoons seem to want instead is a giant business park, a low-tax, low-wage milk-cow, drained, as much as possible, of democratic politics. C.H. Tung speaks of “depoliticising” Hong Kong. By calling this “Chinese values,” he has turned a racist stereotype into a policy: Chinamen who care only about money. Except for one token union man, the people he has appointed in his future Executive Council are all businessmen. One of them, Leung Chun-ying, is a property broker, who will be in charge of housing policy—a conflict of interests, you might think, but this is Hong Kong. Another is the businessman Raymond Ch’ien. Leung told the Far Eastern Economic Review: “There has been too much pandering to public opinion by the legislature.” Ch’ien added, “Once the transition is behind us, political issues will not be given priority.”6

In 1990, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Gordon Wu told me just what he thought of the democrats in Hong Kong. “All this shouting,” he said, “will do them no damned good. I don’t see any advantage in being a politician. There’s no money in it.”

2.

Zigong asked: “How does one deserve to be called a gentleman?” The Master said: “He who behaves with honor, and being sent on a mission to the four corners of the world, does not bring disgrace to his lord, deserves to be called a gentleman.”

—Confucius: Analects

Dwarfed by a forest of new skyscrapers, Government House, where the British Governor lives and works, looks like a fuddy-duddy relic of Empire, a Gilbert and Sullivan set left behind in corporate Hong Kong. Its nucleus was built in the Victorian classical style. A grander bit was added later in the colonial mode, and to make the place look more Oriental, the Japanese had an absurd little tower put up, like a fancy-dress Japanese hat, during the war.

The waiting room, with stacks of Country Life magazines and Nigel Nicolson’s Great Houses of Britain on the table, does nothing to dispel the fuddy-duddy air. Yet if Beijing and its patriotic supporters are to be believed, this place has become, over the last six years, a hotbed of subversive, democratic radicalism. Unlike his predecessors, a plumed succession of empire-building mandarins and feline connoisseurs of “the Chinese mind,” Governor Chris Patten is a politician—a Tory politician. When he arrived in 1992, the main deals between London and Beijing had been done—sometimes openly, but more often furtively, secretly, perhaps even a little guiltily. It was now up to a politician to shepherd the deals through without too much turbulence or loss of face. Since London had promised Hong Kong democracy, Chris Patten, an honorable man, introduced, for the first time, a semblance of democracy.

The legislature had always been a largely advisory body of local notables, some of whom were appointed, and some elected by their peers in functional constituencies. Patten’s electoral reforms, passed by the Legco in 1994, allowed Hong Kong citizens to elect lawmakers directly. The reaction among the tycoons, Tatlerites, and most foreign businessmen was negative, even downright abusive. Who was this British politico, who knew nothing about the ways of Hong Kong, to upset the old order, or worse, upset Beijing? The man was a menace to business! Pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong called Patten a “serpent” and a “strutting prostitute.” Lu Ping, Beijing’s top official in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said Patten was “to be regarded as the criminal of all time.” Prime Minister Li Peng said Patten’s reforms were a “perfidious” attempt to “create disorder and impede the smooth transfer of power.” So to restore order, Beijing appointed a “provisional legislature,” filled with patriots, many of whom had lost the election in 1995, to replace the elected politicians on July 1, 1997.

The rulers in Beijing apparently believed that Patten’s attempt to introduce democracy in the last hours of British rule was a deliberate anti-Chinese plot. Instead of handing over a docile colony, flush with cash, he would leave a counterrevolutionary bastion, drained of cash. As Mark Roberti points out in his excellent book, The Fall of Hong Kong, the Chinese had never agreed to Hong Kong having a fully democratic system in 1997. But for reasons of public relations, in Hong Kong and London, the British pretended that they had. Presumably Patten knew, when he arrived in Hong Kong in 1992, that his democratic reforms were liable to be reversed by Beijing. He allowed Hong Kong citizens to have a sniff of democracy, knowing it would be whisked away from under their noses, as in some macabre practical joke. No wonder Hong Kong’s democrats are not sure who betrayed them more, the Chinese or the British. At least Patten’s predecessors, the diplomatic China hands, had exacted promises from Beijing that a partially elected legislature would have continued after the handover. So why did Patten do it? Was it the pride of a professional politician? Was he simply being naive? Was he perhaps a sadist? Or did he do the only honorable thing?

Roberti believes Patten’s reforms “were a smoke screen put up so the British could avoid feeling guilty about turning six million people over to a brutal regime.” Maybe so. But there is an expedient argument to be made for doing the only decent thing. Patten, after staring for some time at his shoes, put it to me at Government House. If he had agreed to Chinese demands, to “do the dirty work for them,” to settle for less freedom, the consequences would have been “political turmoil”: “How much worse if I had been responsible for counterfeit elections.” Beijing wanted a reelection committee to decide which legislators elected in 1995 were patriotic enough to continue in 1997. “Imagine the political turmoil if I had agreed to that. Imagine the headlines. How would we have explained that?”

It is, of course, a mark of the first governor-politician that he would worry about explaining anything at all. Old-style governors didn’t explain, at least not in public. Nor, for that matter, do diplomats. Patten’s fiercest British critic is Sir Percy Cradock, former ambassador in Beijing, foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and the man who made the backroom deals with China over Hong Kong. Sir Percy is one of those melancholy figures who spent a lifetime studying the Chinese mind while rather despising its human vessels. China’s rulers, he famously said, “have always been thugs, are thugs, and always will be thugs.”7 His conclusions, however, are remarkably similar to those of the thugs and their patriotic allies: politics are a menace. “Up to 1992,” Cradock wrote in a recent polemic against Patten, “British policy in Hong Kong had been largely guided by officials…After 1992, however, politics was in command.”8 And that, he argues, is when the roof fell in.

Cradock blames Patten for ruining his secretive arrangements with China. These arrangements included a Chinese promise that by 2003 half the seats in the legislature would be elected. This wasn’t much, but it was something, and Cradock thinks Patten’s reforms wrecked the deal. So, in his opinion, did Martin Lee’s efforts to safeguard civil liberties. Lee’s Democratic Party is dismissed by Cradock with typical Foreign Office hauteur as a party which sees “special merit in a policy of defiance of China.” As though appeasement of China is necessarily a better policy. Lee recalls a conversation with Cradock in Hong Kong Remembers, which would be hilarious, if it weren’t so tragic:

The British believed then that it was better for Hong Kong to reach an agreement with China—no matter how bad the agreement—than to have no agreement at all. So I asked Sir Percy, “Why are these important decisions not taken by us, who are freely elected by the people of Hong Kong?” He said, “Because we are the sovereign power.” Then I said, “How do you know when you have reached China’s bottom line?” He said, “Well, now, if they tell us both in public and, more importantly, in private, that we have reached the bottom line, then I know.”

Cradock, who, after all, knows the Chinese mind, believes that Patten is “out of touch with local [Hong Kong] opinion.” Martin Lee and his fellow democrats, then, must be even more out of touch. For they believe Patten’s reforms did not go nearly far enough. And so, incidentally, does Patten. He told me that historians would criticize him, “rightly,” for “not having done enough.” The democrats particularly resent his giving in to China’s demand that a Court of Final Appeal, as the last guarantee of judicial autonomy, should only be appointed under Chinese sovereignty, and would have no jurisdiction over anything but economic affairs (“business, business, business”).

It is true that the democrats have a problem. To toe Beijing’s line, in Chinese propaganda parlance, is to be “patriotic”; to defy it is to be “anti-Chinese.” As Patten put it: “It has been difficult for some democrats not to appear as the Government House party.”9 Yet it is Sir Percy Cradock, not Patten, let alone Martin Lee, who is out of touch. For the democratic opposition to authoritarian rule is not a Government House party revolt against Chinese values, or the work of a Westernized elite, estranged from Asian ways. Hong Kong’s democratic movement came alive as a result of Tiananmen. It was part of a patriotic surge of support in Hong Kong for the demonstrators in China. Almost a million people came out into the streets. It was the first time masses of ordinary Hong Kong people had done such a thing. It was perhaps the first time young Hong Kong Chinese felt they had something in common with their mainland “compatriots”—not business, but politics.

Democracy” may not be the first word to roll off most Chinese tongues, but people understand the value of freedom. A Japanese reporter asked a desperately poor immigrant from China why she had come to Hong Kong, where she was living in dismal conditions. She answered: “Life is hard here, but at least we have our freedom; that is the best thing about Hong Kong.”10 If Martin Lee, Emily Lau, Szeto Wah, Christine Loh, and their fellow elected democrats seem particularly concerned about safeguarding freedom in Hong Kong, this concern too became more urgent after what happened in Beijing. All Sir Percy has to say about Tiananmen is that it “increased the difficulties facing British negotiators.”

When Hong Kong voters were given a chance to show what they thought for a change, the democrats outvoted the pro-Beijing candidates in the 1995 Legco elections by margins of three to one. The reason so many people voted for the democrats was not “welfarism,” or the love of Government House, but the conviction that elected politicians are better guardians of civil liberties than property brokers and shipping tycoons, who cut secret deals with their Chinese guanxi in the name of Chinese values. It was Chris Patten’s reforms that enabled Hong Kong citizens to make this point. If there is any hope left for liberal politics in China, this was surely a point worth making.

I asked Liu Kin-Ming, a young journalist on a local Chinese newspaper, what he thought of Patten. Liu said he felt ambivalent. Patten should have done more, he should have come ten years earlier, but in the end he was a British politician, and it was up to the Hong Kong people to fight for their rights. Then, suddenly, in a fit of passion, Liu said: “What I hate most about those Sinologists, like Cradock, is their arrogance. They think they know China, but they don’t know shit!”

Liu is a humorous fellow, who calls himself a “self-hating Chinese” (his wife is Jewish). He feels bad that Hong Kong people haven’t fought harder. He resents his colleagues for calling him “Westernized” when he refuses to tone down his criticism of the Chinese government, or, more often, of his own editors. He told me about the pressures on local journalists to conform, to adapt, to trim, to be more patriotic. Columns deemed to be too critical of Beijing are dropped because, editors say, they are “irrelevant.” Some major papers have stopped covering the Hong Kong democrats altogether. Most editorials in the Chinese press, Liu said, are now pro-Beijing. One of the exceptions is a paper called the Apple Daily. It also happens to be the most popular Chinese paper in Hong Kong.

The Apple Daily was started in 1995 by a self-made businessman named “Jimmy” Lai Chee-ying, who escaped from China as a young boy. Lai was an active supporter of the Tiananmen demonstrations. A few years ago, he attacked Li Peng in print, calling him the “son of a turtle’s egg with zero I.Q.” This aspersion on Li’s brains and unfortunate provenance—he was an orphan—was not appreciated in Beijing, and Lai was forced to close down his business assets in China. But the Apple Daily is popular precisely because of this kind of feistiness, this refusal to kowtow, as well as its scandal stories, showbiz gossip, and racing tips. The editor, Loh Chan, told me that being critical was good for business. The circulation is up to 400,000 and still rising.

I saw Loh in the Apple Daily office, a bustling place in an industrial area of Kowloon. The walls were decorated with posters of nude girls. In Loh’s office was a small bust of Lu Xun, the critical genius of twentieth-century China. I asked Loh whether the paper would be able to continue as it was after June 30. He told me it had just bought its own printing plant, and that the paper’s huge market share would see it through. There was no reason to worry. They would continue to write what they wanted.

Perhaps. But just before I left for Hong Kong, I had heard the news that a major bank had withdrawn its promise to underwrite Lai’s publishing company on the stock exchange. The reason was not given. When asked, a spokesman for the Sun Hung Kai bank said it was “pressure” which should be “understood.”

One month later, another news story emerged, this time about the main English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post. This flagship of the English press, edited by an Englishman, was always known for its editorial independence. There are doubts about this now. The editorials on Chinese politics have softened, even if articles critical of Beijing still appear. The latest news was that a senior Chinese editor from the China Daily, an English-language government organ in Beijing, had been sent to the Post office to keep an eye on things. His office is close to the editor’s. Editorial interference has been denied. Item: a recent notable to join the board of the Post is the former diplomat and connoisseur of the Chinese mind, Sir Percy Cradock.

3.

Is there one single maxim that could ruin a country?” Confucius replied: “Mere words could not achieve this. There is this saying, however: ‘The only pleasure of being a prince is never having to suffer contradiction.’ If you are right and no one contradicts you, that’s fine; but if you are wrong and no one contradicts you—is this not almost a case of ‘one single maxim that could ruin a country’?”

—Confucius: Analects

The drama of China’s takeover of Hong Kong has attracted writers like flies to a carcass. Paul Theroux’s novel Kowloon Tong is by no means the trashiest product to emerge from the feast. But it has some irritating flaws. He deals with Chinese and colonial British stereotypes, but doesn’t always get the details right: a slick English-speaking officer of the People’s Liberation Army would not wear the manufacturer’s label on the outside of his suit, as though he were a peasant from Shandong. An Englishman born and bred in Hong Kong would not be as totally ignorant of Chinese affairs as Theroux’s main character, a textile manufacturer named Neville “Bunt” Mullard. No English family in Hong Kong, however chauvinistic, would stock its house with nothing but British products. The problem with Theroux’s novel is that caricature undermines the credibility of his characters.

What Theroux does get right, however, is the air of deceit, both in British colonialism and in the Chinese takeover. In Theroux’s story of ghastly Brits and even ghastlier Chinese (often literally) screwing each other, everyone is deceiving everyone: Bunt deceives his mother about his secret sex life; Hung, the PLA officer, deceives Bunt in order to take over his factory; Bunt is deceived by his mother, who is perhaps in cahoots with Hung (“business,”…). One sentence about Bunt’s relationship with his mother cleverly sums up the relationship between a colonial master and his native subjects: “He felt so stifled, so possessed by her that he became childishly insistent on deceiving her any way he could.”

The formula for the future status of Hong Kong, “One Country, Two Systems,” has a history of deceit. The phrase was first used in public by Deng Xiaoping in 1984. But the concept is very close to the one applied to the Autonomous Region of Tibet in 1951. Tibet was to be kept separate from China, to allow “feudal” Tibet to catch up with communism. Hong Kong must remain separate from China for fifty years to allow Communist China to catch up with…capitalism? In both cases, the “existing political system” would (will) not be altered. We know what happened in Tibet. We don’t yet know what will happen in Hong Kong. But one issue involving deliberate deceit has yet to be openly discussed: the role of the Chinese Communist Party. What will the New China News Agency be doing in Hong Kong after June 30? Surely not just reporting the news. Will senior people in the Hong Kong government declare their membership in the Communist Party? Which system would they be serving? Who will be accountable to whom?

When Christine Loh, an independent legislator, asked these questions in Legco two years ago, Governor Patten said he did not wish to answer. She brought the issue up again last March, saying that

official silence about the Communist party is only one notable example of a web of omissions, evasions and half-truths that have been considered necessary to hold Hong Kong together despite the contradictions inherent in its status as a British colony in China. 11

She is still waiting for an answer.

It is clearly a problem. There are said to be up to twenty thousand Party members in Hong Kong. Three men in the designated Chief Executive’s council, as well as his closest adviser, a smooth operator named Paul Yip, are rumored to be among them. “McCarthyism,” shouted Shiu Shin Por, the pro-Beijing think tank director, when I put Christine Loh’s question to him, “red-baiting.” Look, he said, after he had calmed down, “it makes no difference whether a guy is a Communist. He won’t tell you anyway, so you just deal with him as an individual.”

But why the secrecy? After all, the Party is legal now. I asked Tsang Yok Sing, a left-wing school principal, who acts as an adviser on Hong Kong affairs to Beijing, and after losing in the 1995 Legco elections, was appointed to the provisional legislature. Tsang is a thoughtful, quiet-spoken man, the kind of intellectual who remains loyal to a cause whose stupidities and cruelties often give him pain. Questions about his own ties to the Party are met with polite smiles and soft denials. He gave me an explanation for the official veil over Party activities, which sounded both plausible and absurd. If the Party operated openly, he said, there would be a great deal of trouble. People would run to the Party office, if they had a problem with the government. Party members might not want to run in elections, for fear of losing. But if they won, Legco might be dominated by Communists. The Chief Executive himself might be a Communist. The people he appointed might be too. The Chinese Communist Party would then be running Hong Kong. Who, then, would still feel confident about “One Country, Two Systems”?

The case for deceit could not have been more clearly put. If the Chinese Communists do not maintain secrecy about the one thing that counts, political accountability, their promise of “One Country, Two Systems” will stand naked. Nonetheless patriots, many businessmen, and British diplomats with reputations to defend, say the two systems can exist in harmony, as long as the democrats are muzzled. One of the most tireless boosters of Hong Kong and China in the American business community is a banker named William H. Overholt. Overholt admires China’s “development-oriented authoritarianism.” He thinks that strong technocratic government, also known as “economism,” will bring prosperity and thus, in time, “political progress.” This progress, in his view, must not be hindered by US kibitzing about human rights. Hong Kong, he argues, will benefit from China’s economism, but only if it is ruled by its own brand of economism, that is, by a business elite which puts the economy first and refrains from criticizing Beijing. Martin Lee and the Hong Kong democrats were wrong, in Overholt’s view, to back the Tiananmen protesters in 1989. “The basic rule,” he writes, “of ‘one country, two systems’ must be that neither China nor Hong Kong is allowed to subvert the other.” 12

Overholt’s opinions echo the thinking of Hong Kong tycoons. Sir S.Y. Chung, for example: “Our main objective must be to maintain our usefulness to China, not be a burden or a threat. Neutrality is the only way that we can survive.” This view might seem practical, but it strikes me as being naive. For Hong Kong cannot remain neutral. It will be part of China and its interests will clash. Some Chinese and Hong Kong interests are by their nature mutually subversive. “Consultative colonialism” can leave a great deal of personal freedom, when the colony is ruled by a democratically governed power with a strong common-law tradition. And unlike Chinese government enterprises, British state institutions were not competing for business in Hong Kong. But the only way Hong Kong can limit subversion from China, such as corruption, blackmail, and the erosion of civil liberties, is by having an independent judiciary, and a fully elected government. Yet these are the very institutions that would help to subvert the Communist system in China.

In April I attended a meeting of a new political party, which was started by Christine Loh. It is called the Citizens Party. Its program is hardly radical: rule of law in the common-law tradition, popular representation, freedom of expression, a free-market economy. The people sitting around the table were mostly young, from diverse backgrounds, dressed casually. They spoke in Cantonese, specked with English. The atmosphere was never solemn; there were many jokes. Loh held up booklets from the US National Democratic Institute, and suggested that classes might be held to teach citizens how to be democrats. It was hard to imagine that Beijing, with all its armed might, would be afraid of these people. Yet Beijing is afraid. For this kind of thing is contagious; it might spill over the border.

The vice-chairman of one of the main democratic parties in Hong Kong told me as much: “We don’t like to talk about this. But one reason for staying in Hong Kong and continuing our fight for democracy is that it is good for China in the long run. By maintaining and improving the system in Hong Kong, it will be a good example for China.” He is right, of course. And that is why Beijing is trying to snuff it out—with the help of Hong Kong tycoons and their boosters. If democracy is crushed, it would be a personal tragedy for Christine Loh, Martin Lee, and the others. But it wouldn’t be good for business either, for without the protection of the law, safeguarded by democratic institutions, there is nothing left but deals, and guanxi. And that is when the free market economy becomes a gangster economy.

What this might involve is the subject of a famous cautionary tale, repeated in Red Flag over Hong Kong. An Australian citizen named James Peng had textile and property interests in China, just a few miles across the border from Hong Kong. He might have done some dodgy deals on the way; it is hard in China for a businessman to get on without them. In any event, the local government authorities wanted to take over a slice of his business. Peng refused and sought alternative guanxi: he got in touch with Deng Xiaoping’s niece. Instead of helping him, however, she took over his business, and arranged for Peng to be jailed. This led to an endless number of lawsuits, in the course of which Peng was released from jail, kidnapped, and finally sentenced to eighteen years in prison for breaking a corruption law which had been enacted more than a year after his arrest.

Still, most businessmen in Hong Kong will not openly express their worries about the future. They will try to secure foreign passports for their families instead. I heard greater skepticism from an unexpected quarter: patriotic socialists who felt their patriotism had been betrayed. One of them was a veteran journalist of the pro-Beijing press, named Lo Fu. I saw him at his cluttered flat near Victoria Park, where a hideous statue of the Empress of India still stands. On his bookshelves were the complete works, as well as a porcelain bust, of Lu Xun. It was odd to find Lu Xun in so many places: at the Apple Daily, at the office of Tsang Yok Sing, the leftist school principal, and now in the flat of Lo Fu. Or perhaps it wasn’t so odd. Lu Xun was a patriot too, whose disgust with corruption in the 1920s made him feel sympathetic to the left. It was a good thing he died in 1936, for his critical spirit would surely have led to his downfall after the Revolution, instead of his canonization by the Party.

Lo Fu was born in 1921, the year the Chinese Communist Party was founded. He supported the Communists for the same reason Lu Xun did: he saw them as patriots, who promised to build a less corrupt, more just, egalitarian, and morally righteous China. Unlike Lu Xun, however, who always kept his distance, Lo joined the Party, and came to Hong Kong in 1948, to write for a left-wing, later Communist newspaper, the Dagong Bao. For years Lo supported all the twists and turns of Party policy, all the purges and campaigns. But although he remained a patriotic Communist after the Cultural Revolution, doubts began to temper his idealism when he saw the mayhem it had unleashed. In 1981, he was no longer trusted by his masters, who ordered him back to Beijing. He was accused of being an imperialist spy—because he had made foreign friends in Hong Kong—and was locked up for eleven years. With the crushing of the Tiananmen rebellion, Lo Fu’s disillusion was complete.

In an interview with the Chinese poet Yang Lian, Lo said something very interesting:

Throughout my years in the Party, I encountered the profound ignorance of my comrades. Their ignorance was a reflection of that within the secrecy-ridden Party hierarchy itself. As tools of the Party’s policy of pacifying the population at large—and following Mao’s much quoted version of an ancient adage: “Confuse the people to help the people understand”—their “politics of idiocy” succeeded only in spreading a culture of ignorance throughout the country. Most of us got used to being the tools of the “idiocy policy.” Since independent thought was taboo, how could we exercise any influence?13

It is in the nature of closed political systems, which claim legitimacy by invoking patriotism and superior moral values, that true believers are often the first to get burned. Lo Fu was a believer. Tsang Yok Sing still is, even though Chinese policy in Hong Kong is opposed to the socialist ideals he always believed in too. I was most impressed, however, by another well-known local patriot. Her name was Dorothy Liu. I didn’t meet her during my stay in Hong Kong. She died on the day I arrived.

With an English degree from Oxford, and a law degree from Harvard, Dorothy Liu could have been the perfect Hong Kong Tatlerite. Instead, since the late 1940s, she was a fierce anti-colonialist and loyal supporter of China. As a solicitor, she worked for mainland Chinese companies, and negotiated the New China News Agency’s purchase of its Hong Kong office. A portrait of Zhou Enlai hung behind her desk. She was the perfect committee person to prepare the way for Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong. Sitting on these committees, however, she began to see the true nature of Chinese politics: efforts to ensure free elections, open government, and so forth were stifled. Then Tiananmen happened, and Liu did an extraordinary thing: she stood up at the National People’s Congress in Beijing and called for a minute’s silence for the innocent victims.

All her life, Dorothy Liu had spoken out against British colonial rule, as a patriot. And now she was prepared to criticize China, as she put it, “out of patriotism.” But the very people who had served the colonial government she had always despised were now rushing to serve Beijing. Committees from which she was beginning to be excluded were being dominated by tycoons who had spent fortunes on the British Conservative Party, before switching sides. Dorothy Liu felt their prominence as an affront. The day after her death, the South China Morning Post ran a photograph. It was taken in December 1993, at the first meeting of the Preliminary Working Committee, an advisory body set up by Beijing. This committee later recommended that the Bill of Rights, enacted after the Tiananmen crackdown, be scrapped. In the photograph, we see Dorothy Liu sitting beside Sir S.Y. Chung. He looks grimly determined, a man used to authority. She is clutching a handkerchief to her mouth. Her eyes are filled with tears.

May 15, 1997

  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.

  6. 6

    Far Eastern Economic Review, April 3, 1997, p. 21.

  7. 7

    Jonathan Mirsky, Index on Censorship, January 1997, p. 140.

  8. 8

    Prospect, April 1997.

  9. 9

    This propaganda line is echoed by some Western commentators. See, for example, William H. Overholt’s China: The Next Economic Superpower (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993). Overholt consistently calls the Hong Kong democrats “pro-British” and “anti-China.” This is like calling American critics of a US government “un-American.”

  10. 10

    Yomiuri Shimbun, April 13, 1997.

  11. 11

    The Sunday Times of London, March 9, 1997.

  12. 12

    Overholt, China: The Next Superpower, p. 174.

  13. 13

    Index on Censorship, January 1997.

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