THE CHINESE WAY

Long after most gave up the ghost, my VCR finally collected its retirement clock a year or so ago. It probably won’t be replaced, yet I still have hundreds of tapes crammed with off-air recordings, many of which will never see the light of day as commercial releases. Probably due to this fact, I held onto most of them when the pre-recorded VHS movies were bagged and binned – ones I could always purchase again on DVD if need be. The majority of these tapes contain content reflecting my eclectic viewing habits at the time they were recorded; reluctant to waste tape, it’s a dead cert any videocassette from the early 90s, for example, will see its last ten or twelve minutes used-up with a TOTP performance, a promo video from ‘The Chart Show’, and a few clips from ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’.

One tape from 1997 I recall has a characteristically idiosyncratic mix – featuring Radiohead’s iconic ‘OK Computer’ Glastonbury set as broadcast on BBC2, the erotically-charged neo-Noir movie ‘The Last Seduction’, and highlights of the Hong Kong Handover Ceremony of June 30/July 1 that year. It’s only through writing this that I’ve looked-up the dates and rearranged my somewhat sketchy memory of summer ’97 – one in which several substances were consumed and have therefore buggered-up my memory’s timeline in the process. I’d thought the Handover Ceremony was closer to something else that happened that summer, something that happened on August 31.

Yes, of course, that summer crashed to its climax with the death of Diana and the month of mourning that plunged the nation into paroxysms of public grief on a scale I was able to view with detachment only because I had always been ambivalent about ‘The People’s Princess’. Was I alone in finding the final act of the British Empire more moving than the floral display outside Kensington Palace? It certainly felt like it at the time. Odd snippets come back to me now, like wondering how old ‘fatty’ Chris Patten could have sired two such gorgeous daughters; they were seen on the day China took back control due to the former Tory MP being the last colony’s last governor, the consolation prize awarded to him by John Major upon losing his seat at the 1992 General Election. I know it sounds positively 19th century – a man from Westminster dispatched to govern an imperial possession; yet, it was less than 30 years ago.

As a child, I became aware this country had numerous cultural and sentimental tentacles stretching across the globe and that we retained little pockets of British soil a long way from home. There was Gibraltar, and there still is Gibraltar; but there was also Hong Kong, which was the one remaining genuinely exotic leftover from Empire – one of the spoils of the Opium Wars that went on to become the Far East’s premier economic powerhouse. I remember that early 70s ‘mum hunk’, the suave Gerald Harper visiting Hong Kong in a couple of episodes of ‘Hadleigh’; there was also a BBC documentary series called ‘Hong Kong Beat’, focusing on the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, with its catchy theme tune even making the charts; and, lest we forget, Bruce Lee made most of his movies there, movies that went on to become staple diets of video rental shops. Yet, as we moved into the 1980s, anything to do with Hong Kong started to centre around Britain’s 99-year lease, as if the island was a holiday home owned by the UK that would be inherited by Hong Kong’s nearest neighbour once its owner died. Actually, maybe that’s how it really was.

For decades, Hong Kong had provided refuge for political dissidents fleeing China, and the prospect of the colony falling under Chinese jurisdiction was understandably worrying for them; their concerns naturally intensified following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Even though the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 laid out the ‘one country, two systems’ concept to allay fears Hong Kong would end up as a suburb of mainland China and be subject to the same repressive rules and regulations governing the People’s Republic, it was accompanied by gradual goalpost-moving on the part of the British Government to deliberately limit the potential numbers of Hong Kong natives claiming British citizenship and the right to settle in the mother country. After Tiananmen Square, with the Handover only eight years away, an estimated 10,000 rushed to apply for residency in the UK. Singapore, Canada, Australia and the US proved to be popular alternative destinations, and during its last decade as a Crown Colony, Hong Kong lost almost a million of its citizens who chose to emigrate rather than remain.

Tony Blair had been PM less than two months when he joined his Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Governor Patten and Prince Charles on the podium to officially cede ownership of the island to China. Brian’s unflattering account of the occasion surfaced in the Mail on Sunday a few years later, wherein he compared the Handover Ceremony to a cynically choreographed Soviet-style performance and referred to the event as ‘The Great Chinese Takeaway’; the Prince of Wales was of course representing Brenda, as he had 17 years earlier when the Union Jack was lowered in Rhodesia. With Africa long gone by 1997, it was time for the Far East to finally follow suit, and I have to say my memory of watching the Ceremony live on TV isn’t one that evokes the heir’s cynicism. I was conscious this was something of genuine historical significance, like Churchill’s funeral – the belated end of one kind of Britain and (with Blair fittingly present) the beginning of another.

For the people of Hong Kong, there was no sailing off into the sunset on the Royal Yacht Britannia, however; they were left to deal with the realities of the new regime. Their predicament couldn’t be compared to the difficulties facing the UK’s other ex-colonies following the cutting of imperial apron springs, i.e. being at the mercy of hard-line religious despots or military coups; Hong Kong had not achieved independence, but had merely changed hands. Having a totalitarian super-state on the doorstep is no more a pacifier of anxiety for Hong Kong’s citizens than it is for those residing in the former Soviet satellites; the perennial fear that Beijing will slowly implement its own authoritarian agenda on the island by stealth is something that has continued to creep up on the people; and cracking down on public demonstrations of dissatisfaction such as the ‘umbrella protests’ of five years ago with tough sentencing appeared to suggest their fears were well-founded.

Attempts to introduce a new extradition law, whereby anyone from Hong Kong who invokes the ire of Beijing can be removed to mainland China for trial, has now provoked a fresh outburst of protest. This time, however, it hasn’t emanated wholly from the Hong Kong youth born after the Handover, whose view of themselves as international citizens has supplanted the traditional affinity with Britain of previous generations; it has spawned an unlikely alliance of different demographics ordinarily divided by faith, politics and age – united in their opposition at Beijing reneging on aspects of the Sino-British Joint Declaration; this week it has crossed the line from peaceful protest to civil disorder. The island’s former colonial overlord, however, can do nothing but issue meek condemnations of China’s actions; we absolved ourselves of all responsibility in 1997 – and, besides, China today equates with trade and money. We wouldn’t want to upset our friends in Beijing – making one wonder if it was just Hong Kong that was handed over 22 years ago.

© The Editor

2 thoughts on “THE CHINESE WAY

  1. Much as we may deplore the oppression in Hong Kong, in truth there was no obligation on China to do anything other than a total take-over back in 1997. The fact that the UK government managed to negotiate something better than that was quite a bonus and a surprise to many at the time.

    There’s no doubt that China aims to integrate Hong Kong fully but would prefer not to compromise its value too greatly in the process – but the former matters more to China than the latter, increasingly so as China’s economy still grows so rapidly and the relative worth of Hong Kong diminishes..

    It was always unrealistic to expect continuity of ‘British values’ in Hong Kong for the full 50 years of the hand-over agreement, that it’s more or less lasted half that time is better than many ever expected, me included.

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    1. I suppose the economic success of Hong Kong must have made it a desirable prize in the run-up to 1997, but – as you say – China appears to have outstripped it in the intervening years. Perhaps China’s agenda now is more simply one of sovereignty than economics.

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