For many in Asia, the year 1997 was a memorable year — one that seems like it was only yesterday. It was the year when the UK “returned” Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It was a festive time and many went to Hong Kong just to say they were present at the handover event.
To add to the festivity, the rulers of the PRC — a government that did not exist when the UK and the Qing Dynasty made their original agreement — promised the people of Hong Kong that within 20 years they would have universal suffrage. All was well and good. However, as the year 2017 draws nigh, not only have the festivities died down, but they have been replaced by doubt, discontent and protests.
The falsity of the PRC’s promise has taken on far greater proportions and a showdown is building. It is a showdown that, regardless of the outcome, is full of implications not only for the people of Hong Kong, but also for all people in the region, including Taiwan.
What happened to the promise that return to the motherland would be glorious and why do Hong Kongers not believe it?
First, they can count; they are aware that nearly 17 of the 20 years have passed. The clock is ticking and they are no closer to universal suffrage than they were in 1997. Some would even say they have gone backward.
Second, the people of Hong Kong are astute enough to know the difference between a promise, a hope and a wish. They also know, of course, that the rewriting of the textbooks used in their schools does not qualify as keeping a promise. Some prefer to call it an attempt at “brainwashing.”
Third, and more importantly, Hong Kongers know their history; they know the how, why and when by which their territory grew into the greatness that it now has.
When Hong Kong became part of the UK in 1842 after the first Opium War, it was land with very little trade value and surrounded by mountains. The centers of trade had been for centuries the neighboring cities of Macau and Canton. However, Hong Kong would quickly surpass them.
The people know that their rise had nothing to do with their being part of the “motherland”; rather it came from being outside it, separate from it. This does not mean that they were or are necessarily enamored of the British.
However, unlike the majority of the people in China, the people of Hong Kong know that they are not frogs in a Chinese well. They have seen that their rise from a basically non-descript land to the great trading center that they are was due to their hard work and skill in being part of the UK trade network.
Call it living in a bigger well or something else, but their history has been to see a different sky. In the past century-and-a-half, they experienced a world and sky far wider than the barrel vision of a past under whatever Chinese dynasty had power.
At the same time, although Hong Kongers had seen a different sky than their “former compatriots,” they have always been close enough to China to see the numerous continuing problems there. They could see the corruption of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and why it lost China. They could see the foolishness of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Great Leap Forward; they did not have the cult of Mao’s personality that the Chinese had; nor did their textbooks teach them to say Mao was only “30 percent wrong.”
They have seen the foolhardiness of the Cultural Revolution; and they also watched how China switched to a more capitalistic bent, something that Hong Kong had been practicing for decades.