Thursday, 20 June 2019

My Hong Kong Story

Hong Kong is probably the one place in the world where I felt closest to a sense of home.

That was more than twenty years ago. It was the mid-1990s, just as the curtain was coming down on more than a hundred and fifty years of British colonial rule. It was a time of tension, uncertainty, and fears for the future – which two decades on have surged back to the surface, raw and unresolved.

The British and Chinese governments had negotiated the Joint Declaration – an international treaty to return Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy. Its political, economic and legal systems and way of life were to remain unchanged for at least fifty years – ‘one country, two systems’, as proposed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The Hong Kong Basic Law would come into effect as its new constitution at the moment of the Handover on 1st July 1997. I arrived with four years left to go, just as the last British governor, Chris Patten, was shovelling in dramatic last-minute reforms aimed at making the electoral system more democratic – antagonising the Chinese and earning a battery of vicious epithets of which the politest was ‘sinner condemned for a thousand generations’ (千古罪).

At seven years old it would be some time yet before I absorbed all this. That may be why Hong Kong retains so special a place in my memory. It is the last place where I remember an existence at least partly free of the alienation and conflicts with human society that have defined my journeys since. After the handover I would arrive in England as a teenager and it would all go horribly wrong. Hong Kong – the last place the world seemed to make some sense.

The Hong Kong handover ceremony, 30th June - 1st July 1997 (from South China Morning Post).
An innocence? Of sorts. Though it was beyond my consciousness at the time, I lived in an extremely privileged position in Hong Kong’s colonially-defined social geography. I was the son of a British diplomat installed in a comfortable apartment in Mid-Levels, halfway up the slopes of the Peak on Hong Kong Island and largely the preserve of white people with means or in government service. The windows that made up all of the north-facing wall commanded a panoramic view across iconic Victoria Harbour – the skyscrapers of Central, the museums of Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon, and of course, at the centre of the view with its fluttering Blue Ensign, the white palatial Government House where my dad’s boss Chris lived.

Of Hong Kong’s history, socio-economic problems and broader international context I gleaned little. I had a basic awareness of course that Britain had got the territory off the Chinese a long time ago in dodgy circumstances and was now due to give it back. On a certain level this felt like justice, but it also gave people real anxieties in the wake of the 1989 Tiananamen massacre. My dad’s work occasionally brought me in contact with Chinese political dissidents and survivors of the crackdown, major characters in the struggle for a freer and more humane PRC who would leave on me a deep and lasting personal impression. Beyond that, most of it passed over my head – and in colonial bourgeois surroundings, attending an English-speaking international school in Pok Fu Lam (regularly butchered upon English tongues into ‘Pok Fulham’), it was not as though I would receive an impartial assessment of Hong Kong’s complex story, least of all the more notorious British behaviours therein.

It was not as carefree as it sounds. Indeed, I would hesitate to call it happy. I remember the seeds of alienations that foreshadowed the horrors to come – at the differing treatment of boys and girls at school, for instance, but most significantly towards the dictatorial conduct of adults towards children. By nature it incensed me, and still does, when adults dare make any collective claim to maturity, or insist they have the right to control children on coercive terms (not least while claiming belief in democracy for themselves). 

Some of these experiences were traumatic. Because my perceived difference from the “normal” children perturbed the adults I was referred to a child psychologist – an English lady of what in hindsight was obvious colonial deportment, tutting down her nose at my objections to adult despotism in sessions at her villa on the Peak, where lorded the highest tier of the British settler elite no doubt casting a gaze of much the same arrogance upon the native Chinese population below. Similar condescension barred me from attending the handover ceremony itself, something I have never found it in me to forgive. To be clear, this is less a denunciation of specific individuals – least of all my parents – as it is of toxic structures and cultures, which are not incidental in a week when Chief Executive Carrie Lam has characterised police firing rubber bullets and tear gas at democracy protesters with patronising analogies about mothers disciplining their spoiled children.

Innocence, then? Only of sorts. Resentment at adult authoritarianism was my political awakening. Was there something distinctly Hongkongese about that? Something not so much cultural as spiritual, maybe – some genius loci or feng shui alive in the place, that touched my soul through all the imaginary concrete of oppressive social norms and infused me with the knowledge that all people are equal before it, and that all who have will have rights? If so, then judging by the resolve of Hong Kong’s young people at the helm and heart of its anti-authoritarian resistance, I am far from the only one it has so enthused.

Beneath the struggles, enough space was left for me to build fonder memories. Hong Kong is a place crammed with innumerable little worlds of their own, whose names may be perplexing to foreigners but will conjure imagery instantly familiar to those who spent their childhoods exploring them. Beautiful mountains and country parks, which birthed my appreciation for long walks in the wilds – Mount Parker, Mount Butler, Ma On Shan, Tai Mo Shan (though I never got round to doing the one with the Buddha on Lantau Island). Sai Kung. Ocean Park, with its cable car. The science museum with that wonderful sculpture with the rolling bowling balls that went up four levels. Boat trips – Lamma Island, Cheng Chau, Discovery Bay. The Star Ferry. Tiger Balm Gardens. The Mid-Levels escalator; the Peak Tram. The Hilton Hotel, where I was “stuck” for a couple of months before our flat was ready (and got really upset when it was later demolished by Li Ka-shing). The jaguars and orangutans in the Botanical Gardens. Tiananmen commemorations in Victoria Park. “Freddy” on the TVB weather forecast. The typhoon season whose rains assailed us through that wall of windows, necessitating a defensive line of towels and buckets. Riding the Kowloon-Canton Railway (as it was then) to the border at Lo Wu, with an insistent curiosity to cross into China and see Shenzhen because it was there. I loved maps and remember charting every corner of the Hong Kong road system for myself and yearning to explore their more perplexing limits in person, like Jat’s Incline, or driving up the peak not by Peak Road but the narrow and precarious Coombe Road which my dad attempted once, hated all the way and swore never to do again.

From a walk in Hong Kong between 1993 and 1997, probably at the Tai Po Kau nature reserve in the New Territories

In 2004 I returned to Hong Kong for an internship with a civil society think tank. Seven years had passed since I was last there, but Hong Kong, now the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, had changed. More skyscrapers. More Mandarin Chinese in the air, contesting the hitherto dominant Cantonese. Where once flapped the Blue Ensign with its Union Jack now flew the white bauhinia in its field of red, and everywhere in the landscape was the mark of the ubiquitous (and ubiquitously dubious) new viceroy, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (a.k.a. ‘C. H. Tung’). Much of my time on this occasion was spent on nostalgic revisitings of old and familiar ground, including the calf-destroying trek up Old Peak Road, from Mid-Levels up the north face of the Peak, which I barely survived and wondered how on earth I had used to scamper up regularly with barely a sweat.

This time however Mid-Levels was a world away. I was based in noisy, crowded working-class Kowloon, in a tiny apartment that was nonetheless vast in comparison to the cages, shoeboxes, coffins or other nicknames that have well described the cubicles in which thousands of Hong Kong’s working people are forced to dwell. Here were the dark secrets Hong Kong had so long kept from me: that this was no free and equal paradise on the underbelly of authoritarian East Asia but one of the most inequitable societies in the world. Granted, it may have resisted the coagulation of a rigid class hierarchy, but there was no escaping the in-your-face wealth that towered into the clouds, peering down at abysmal deprivation round its base.

My internship brought me in contact with criticisms of this inequity. The standard retort from the territory’s business class, I found, was that Hong Kong was an ‘economic city’ – some status which for all I could tell they had pulled out of their orifices to pass off these miserable poverties and housing crises as acceptable, because Hong Kong was somehow special and should not be judged by the usual rules on human rights and socio-economic welfare. This was deeply discomforting. It was a perfect echo of the language about irrelevant and foreign human rights standards the PRC deploys to brush off critiques of its own abuses. Hong Kong left people behind; did not boast a socio-economic freedom to match its political freedom. This complicated the easy narrative of a good-versus-evil tussle, of British-inspired democratic legacies versus Chinese authoritarian encroachment.

The truth, as should always have been clear, was far more complicated than that. It is necessary in the first instance to never forget how the British came to take control of Hong Kong to begin with: through the brutal violence of the First Opium War of 1839-42 and the Treaty of Nanjing, first among a cascade of unequal treaties and naked foreign aggressions that brought the Chinese to the depths of humiliation in the nineteenth century. This was a war the British waged to protect their ability to export opium into China, and they seized Hong Kong Island to serve as a staging point for both this catastrophic drug trade and their ongoing military conquests.

This is not the past but the present. Though the PRC government has of late been behaving with indefensible villainy towards Hong Kong as in countless other matters, any resolution and journey to a worthwhile future requires empathy with the Chinese sense of time. Recovery from those epic injustices and the restoration of China to its rightful prestige underpins the entire cosmic narrative of China’s rise as a global superpower – and it is cosmic, echoing deep Confucian worldviews which place five thousand years of Chinese civilisation at the centre of the world as an anchoring principle of the universe, by which reading what the British did to them was an offence not only against China but against the very stability of the cosmos. The CCP’s supposed rectification of that, its return of balance to the universe, is the crux of its political legitimacy and for many Chinese (not least those who have got rich off it) the vindication of all the horrific crimes and sacrifices it has demanded of them since.

One does not have to agree with this – may even find much of it nuts – to acknowledge that somewhere in there they do have some pretty damn valid points, especially the points born in opium-drenched suffering on a scale unimaginable to the little populations of Europe. Any constructive engagement with the Chinese, especially for a culpable and now Brexit-hapless ex-empire whose loss of Hong Kong in 1997 was for many the conclusive symbol of its fall, relies on this comprehension. And in the meantime, no British conversation on drugs, including that of the present carousel of Tory gangsters who boast about taking them in their youths and getting away with it because of their middle-class whiteness, should pass without a reminder that it was they, the British, who pioneered the model of the bloodthirsty narco-state that enriches itself on the poisoning of countless lives.

But we digress. After 1842 the British developed Hong Kong in all the paranoia of a fortified outpost deep in the armpit of a hostile and volatile mega-continent. This was the sense of insecurity that drove them to grab the Kowloon peninsula as a buffer zone after the Second Opium War in 1860, followed by a further 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. The latter ended up with most of the installations on which the Island and Kowloon came to depend, in particular ports and reservoirs, making the original conquests insupportable without them – hence when the lease’s expiry in 1997 approached, they were barrelled together into the Joint Declaration and transferred back to China as a whole.

Simplified map of Hong Kong from, showing clearly its three divisions which descend from this history: Hong Kong Island in red, Kowloon in grey, and the New Territories in yellow. Hong Kong also includes over 250 outlying islands, of which the largest, Lantau, is at left in green.

For most of this period it was the British (and for a few wretched years in the 1940s, the Japanese) whose colonial rule was the prime enemy of Hong Kong people’s self-determination. It was the British who violently suppressed protests and rebellions while presiding over low wages and hazardous living conditions, especially for the waves of refugees who sought shelter there from the turbulence of a convulsing China and other regional conflicts like the Vietnam War. Particularly in the Cold War period, as decolonisation swept the world, the roots of the ‘economic city’ paradigm that has kept the working population impoverished are in plain view. The colonial regime made great efforts to develop Hong Kong as a centre of commerce, manufacturing and tourism, stabilising it under a cloud of businesspeople sufficiently co-opted to identify an interest in keeping stable political weather. But until Patten’s reforms in the 1990s, there were no substantial changes to the political system to give Hong Kong’s people – subjects, not citizens – genuine representation in running their own affairs.

The UK’s silence in Hong Kong’s present crisis, in breach of its binding commitments under the Joint Declaration, should be read as the continuation of that tradition. Its cavalier attitude to international law and prioritisation of (poorly) calculated self-interest over human rights obligations – in the present case, performative meekness at the feet of a rising China in hope it will throw them favourable trade deals to rescue them after Brexit – is consistent with its long-term behaviour.

Critics might find it tempting to view Patten’s democratising reforms in the same light. Though on the surface an exception to British anti-democratic policy, was this apparent parting-gift-that-looked-like-democracy in fact another cynical ploy to make the natives feel better towards their old masters and perhaps gain their lasting goodwill, just perhaps translating to continuing political influence, much as the British sought to pull off in their earlier decolonisations? This is certainly a tasty argument for the PRC, which it leverages to great effect among an international audience many of whose members (not least Iraq) have experienced, often at gory cost, the same conniving hypocrisy. By that reading, the latest popular unrest is simply the manipulation of scheming white imperialist ghosts, stubbornly haunting what they still consider their rightful colonies and not knowing when to just die.

This however would be as stiff an oversimplification as the British-democracy, Chinese-authoritarianism narrative. On a personal note, I have had my disagreements with Chris Patten, fundamental ones sometimes, but my various encounters with him have never left me in doubt as to his integrity as a human being. It stands out all the more for the vacuum of it into which his Tory party has since dived headfirst, and whose difference, in both substance and tone, is obvious when you contrast his articulate commentary on Hong Kong or Brexit with the nationalist-fairytale delusions of the cardboard crooks he is critiquing. Serious scrutiny for the misdeeds of the British Empire, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, is essential and at last beginning to take hold. But that does not mean we cannot acknowledge the individuals who, though their trajectories in time and space happened to land them in the colonial administration, strove in good faith to use their power for good (and I would think my old man was among them). As for Britain’s current leadership, it should be blatant by now that they have neither the influence nor the competence to orchestrate something like the protests in Hong Kong even if they wanted to, least of all when their concern for its fate has been deafening for its silence.

The more important point here is to understand what Hong Kong actually is. I believe it a mistake to see it as either a British or Chinese satellite culture, torn between an impossible choice of a future in the image of one or the other. Whatever the rights and wrongs of how both great powers have behaved toward it, the outcome is that it has developed a political culture that is uniquely its own. That culture’s nurturing has above all been the work of neither the British, nor the Chinese, but of Hong Kong’s own people. And perhaps like other cultures that have grown on the liminal spaces of cross-civilisational contact, it is far more than the sum of its parts.

The great irony of the Hong Kong people’s passion for democracy is that Hong Kong is not, and has never been, a democracy in any meaningful sense. Yet precisely because they know its value, having had to fight so hard for it, the culture or spirit of democracy, without which all democratic rituals and platitudes are nothing, burns brighter among them than in either of the two empires that have sought to steer its destiny. Its civil society is open, noisy, argumentative, down-to-earth and relentlessly engaged – a kaleidoscope as diverse in its origins as in its content, likely owing as much to Confucian remonstrance and the clamour of the south seas marketplace as to what the British like to imagine as their democratic bequest.

None of it, in fact, was given to them. They have picked and chosen what they could off the full range of influences that washed around their archipelago, and from them assembled something that rightly belongs to them alone, though they would seem more than happy to share. That is because that something, their something, is grounded not on some ethnic or nationalist tribal notion that they are more special than everyone else, but rather the opposite, a claim to universal rights and freedoms that properly belong to all people. Theirs is a spontaneous republican humanism in whose warmth all the charlatans, from Europeans who claim to have invented human rights to Asians who insist they don’t apply to their people, melt in equal shame.

Perhaps the correct direction of democratic instruction should be from Hong Kong to Britain, not the other way round – because can anyone seriously familiar with the both of them imagine Hong Kong people putting up with the existential farce that has now enveloped the British (or at least, the English) political culture?

Hong Kong has fought for and tasted the promise of a free and equitable society. It is not there yet, and like most of humankind has further to go than it has come. Yet when you reach a certain point, when enough of the dream has coalesced into solidity for long enough to feel it with your hands, nothing in the world can compel you to surrender it. Hong Kong’s destiny, too, must, and will be, its own. The harder anyone presses down on it, the more eruptively its people will push them right back up.

The essential problem in Hong Kong now is that this is a lesson the PRC leadership seems not to understand and has grown unused to having to learn. The current protests have come not out of nowhere but at the heated end of a conflict that has been brewing for well over a decade now, constantly bubbling and occasionally bursting. Its signs were already tangible on my brief return in 2004. The previous year the Chinese had leant on C. H. Tung to pass a bill to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law prohibiting ‘treason’, ‘secession’, ‘sedition’, ‘subversion’ and other sinisterly-worded political nothings, prompting a public outcry and massive demonstration which forced the government to back down. Confrontations like these continued for the rest of the decade, but their growth into a fundamental challenge to the ‘one country, two systems’ settlement looked by no means inevitable until the more recent autocratic resurgence in the PRC under President Xi Jinping. Chinese authoritarianism has since re-asserted itself with a vengeance, with the persecution of dissidents, totalitarian surveillance and cultural genocide against the Uyghurs of Xinjiang among its nastiest expressions. With it appears to have come a new determination to bury the Joint Declaration and coerce Hong Kong into submisson.

With this, Hong Kong’s back-and-forth between PRC interventions and popular resistance has taken an uglier turn. The PRC has marginalised voices it dislikes from Hong Kong’s political discourse and sought to pressure universities and the media into ‘patriotic’ teaching and censorship of dissenting views. In 2015, in its most brazen move yet, it abducted five booksellers from a shop in Causeway Bay and forced them across the border. By then the Hong Kong people had made their feelings well clear in the great ‘yellow umbrella’ demonstrations of 2014, rattling the Beijing authorities on television before a worldwide audience. The current protests are a continuation of the same story, only charged to a greater critical mass on account of how the initial object of grievance, a proposed law that would allow extradition of suspects to the PRC, threatens Hong Kong’s reputation for politically independent rule of law, thus dismaying not only the youth who stood at the nucleus of the 2014 protests but the self-enriching business class as well.

All of this has been needless, and is the result of the PRC’s attempts to force Hong Kong back into China on coercive terms instead of welcoming it in for what it is. This was not an inevitable path but a conscious political choice on the PRC’s part, and one that bodes as terribly for China’s own interests as it does for the people of Hong Kong. Not only is it doomed to fail, it betrays the most successful best practices in the Chinese heritage based on the understanding that China, as a civilisation, as a concept, is too vast for anyone to control by imposing a single way upon all its members. Rather, China has thrived when it has been is flexible enough to accommodate their full diversity and offer each a positive stake in its vision. Deng Xiaoping’s legacy has been overshadowed by his role in the Tiananmen massacre and answer for that he must, but it is easy to forget that for most of his reign he was known as a consummate pragmatist; ‘one country, two systems’ was his idea and came straight out of that tradition.

If the Chinese authorities can convince Hong Kong people they would feel comfortable to be part of China, they might yet embrace it. But if, like the authoritarians who blighted my years there, it talks down to them and demands their obedience, it will lose them for good. It will lose a lot more if it persists in the same abusive ways towards its own people. The future of the Chinese dream – the difference between liberation from the authoritarian cycle they set out to break in 1911, and a mere rise and fall in that cycle like all those before it – rests upon that understanding. The curse of Qin Shi Huang still lives; China is no republic yet.

Britain, too – certainly no republic – has its own oppressive imperial heritage of hypocrisy, lies and the doctoring of history it prefers to forget. But now it also forgets that at its cleverest it likewise has the capacity for principled pragmatism. The least it should understand is that its supineness over Hong Kong (let alone its slithering in the excreta of Donald Trump) does absolutely nothing for its own interests. Instead it shows the world that this once-mighty empire is nakedly indifferent to its commitments in international law, from the Joint Declaration to the Good Friday Agreement, and feels no shame in humbly licking the nether regions of bullies it wants things from. Neither sends out an impressive message about its dignity or reliability in a relationship.

Both countries, with their dreams of renewed influence in the world, might think about the extent to which that influence depends on others’ willingness to trust them, and what the effects on that trust will be if they discard international treaty obligations on a whim.

As things stand, it looks unlikely that either will come to its senses in a hurry (though I would love to be proved wrong). The challenge for the Hong Kong people, on the other hand, to continue asserting their rights as human beings, is one the world can be utterly confident they will rise to fulfil. Their courage in the face of indifference and contempt is an inspiration to the world, and a necessary one at a time when everywhere the authoritarian scourge reawakens and salivates for blood.

Yet even they should remember that their Hong Kong dream is incomplete at best. In its cracks lurks a danger of their own in the form of their business classes – those who have benefited most from Hong Kong’s prosperity as a free and open world city, but as free-market capitalists, hold the least in the way of ethical values committing them to the well-being of its citizens. There might come a time when they hold the balance, and must choose between the risk of supporting a popular stand against authoritarianism, or an ostensibly safer compliance with the authoritarians as they repress the people in the name of ‘stability’. The nature of the Hong Kong genius loci is that only the former would be a sensible choice. The latter, of which they showed disturbing contemplations during the protests of 2014, would cause it to desert them, for it would be a betrayal from whose damage Hong Kong as a coherent concept, as a people, the very foundation to which they owe their wealth, would never recover.

Hong Kong is on a long journey, and any journey involves changing in some ways and staying the same in others. What is most important – what is indeed the essence of democracy – is that its people have the power to author those choices themselves, and whatever they choose, retain the sense of togetherness by which they feel in each other a shared sense of home.

For a time, back in the 1990s, I felt a connection to that sense of home as well. Yes, there was struggle against those who sought to punish me, as a child, for standing up to adult authoritarians. But there were limits to what they could do. Hong Kong did not permit them to inflict physical violence on me for it – no beating, no tear gas, no rubber bullets, no political imprisonment or kidnapping. Beneath them there was at any rate a far greater power: the mountains and islands and country parks of a land like no other in the world. Hong Kong did just enough to accept me for who I was and part of my soul has never left it. A power that profound does not change with a mere swapping of flags and anthems, and when I went back in 2004 I could still feel it, distant now, but alive and vibrant. I fully believe it is still there now and that the very meaning of Hong Kong has grown inseparable from it. And though it be not my place to decide, that is something I hope never changes – that any seven-year-old child who ever stands where I stood will be at least as free, and preferably more so, to condemn Chinese authoritarians, indeed any authoritarians, as I was to condemn the British ones.

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