Hong Kong: Fifty years no change

Hong Kong is living proof that “one country two systems” has worked. It has also lived up to the promise that it will keep dancing, keep going to the races and keep the stock market alive. Pauline D Loh looks back on the last 14 years.

It was an emotional sojourn that started with a tremulous return in 1997 and that evolved into a lead role in the nation building of an economic giant. Hong Kong has come a long way from being a tremulous prodigal returning to the arms of an estranged motherland.

It was not always this easy.

Sam Hui, king of Cantopop in the ’80s and ’90s, was singing out the melancholy and trepidation buried in Hong Kong hearts at that time.

About to be deserted by her British guardians, the ex-colony was to be returned to China, an unknown presence that seemed to be glowering down at the flamboyant delinquent on its doorstep.

The people of Hong Kong, used to the laissez-faire ways of their colonial masters, were unsure of the future, uncertain of what was to become of them and greatly concerned that Beijing might take away the freedoms they had so taken for granted.

In 1984, the countdown began when China and the United Kingdom signed the Joint Declaration in the Chinese capital, starting the process of a handover of power that would be fully complete by 1997.

Under the Joint Declaration was an assurance by Beijing that it would adopt a “One Country, Two Systems” principle, and that Hong Kong would continue its previous capitalist system and way of life for a period of 50 years after 1997.

In the words of the Chinese leaders, this meant that Hong Kong could “keep dancing, keep going to the races and keep playing the stock exchange” – 舞照跳, 马照跑, 股照炒. But in those immediate years before 1997, the uncertainty in Hong Kong was almost tangible. Those who could were looking for another country to escape to.

Those who could not for various reasons could only hunker down, grit their teeth and expect the worst. It was no coincidence that Sam Hui’s songs rocketed off the charts at this time.

In one plaintive melody, he sang of how Hong Kong emigrants felt like misfits in a foreign country with strange landscapes full of tall grasses instead of skyscrapers, where they had to adapt to a new language, new lifestyle, and most of all new food.

In another, he sang of the homesickness of the Hong Kong traveler, where the sight of Mount Fuji brought memories of The Peak, and Hawaii’s harbor made him long for the fishing lights along Victoria Harbor.

It was both poetic and poignant.

As is so often the case, the gloomy anticipation was about the only punishment meted out to Hong Kong, although it did struggle to find an acceptable administration.

But as it slowly adapted to life under the red flag, it did receive a wake-up call that made the people look deep into their consciousness and decide who they wanted to be.

For the first time, they had a national identify, rather than just a reputation for being the goose that laid so many golden eggs for a faraway master.

About a quarter of the time has passed since China declared the deadline of “No change for 50 years”.

What has taken Hong Kong, and indeed the world, by surprise is this: Although the SAR has noticeably evolved in the interim, it is mainland China that has undergone the sea change as it enthusiastically embraced economic reforms that have propelled it to the top of the world economics class, so to speak.

Much of the success story in this unique political integration stems from two main factors. One is the innate resilience and pragmatism of the Hong Kong people and their determined ability to adapt, and the second, equally important, is the tolerance and space Beijing has given this special administrative region so far. In the words of one of the SAR’s leading architects: Where else in China can you find demonstrations being held every weekend right under the noses of the SAR administration?

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