Hong Kong and the End of an Affair

A trip to Hong Kong used to be a simply affair. I’d arrive, get a taxi to a pre-selected tailor, and get fitted for a suit. Then I’d take a few hours to tour the island, especially the Victoria City section from which the British used to look down on the masses below, returning to pick up my tailor-made suit before the sun set on this empire.

This occurred when I was a British subject serving in the U.S. Navy, and glad to find traces of old world British splendor throughout the island. In retrospect, the remnants of the British Army manning outposts and bridgeheads to the mainland could well have been stationed outside of Buckingham Palace, shuffling back and forth, waiting for the clock and century to change.

And everything changed in 1997, when Britain handed Hong Kong over to the Chinese. I was in Hong Kong at the time and asked a long-time British resident when we might know the outcome of the transfer. He reminded me this was China and that country thinks in terms of centuries, not months or years. Given the demonstrations now taking place in Hong Kong, the clock is also ticking for China.

While working for Scientific American, I met with government officials in Beijing who seemed interested in the magazine, not for its size but for its prestige and international influence. I had brought a current issue of the magazine that explored the birthplace of the “first man” to a meeting with the Minister of Science and his associates. The session was orderly, scripted and predictable. But not so at the dinner afterwards!

The article in question dealt with migration of modern man out of Africa and to the east. The Minister asked my opinion of the article, and I said it was part of a series, consistent with current scientific thought, and fossil evidence. The Minister lectured me that China was the birthplace of man and, as I understood his remarks through a translator, the current center of the universe. At least that is what I heard. I assume something was lost in the translation. Nonetheless, there was a righteous existential echo in the chamber.

The dinner was about ten years ago. I haven’t followed the science on this issue. What stays with me about the meeting was not the minister presenting his evidence about the origin of man, but how quickly the remarks became wrapped in patriotic dress and a perceived new world order. So much was coming out of China at that time, so why not the first man?

During my visits to China I realized that, while the government might be concerned with its pedigree and the position of China in the scientific narrative, it is much more concerned about stability and order. I recall China’s deft embrace of a long-refuted cultural trappings and ancient dynasties to build a fascinating national song-and-dance during the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic in 2008. Of course, every country does this but I felt at the time China needed mythological legitimacy more than many Western nations.

I had worked in Moscow during the “perestroika and glasnost” movements, a subject that the Chinese were very interested in. Twenty years later, the Russian experiment remains startling and profound. To have a restructuring of the government and agencies overnight, without the legal apparatus to contain it, now seems like a recipe for disaster. Perhaps equally ambitious was the “glasnost” or openness that took the lid off a highly repressed culture, the effects of which we are still seeing today in Putin’s bare-chested expansionism, in which he seems to be trying to re-assemble bits and pieces of a failed empire that was always based on a fiction.

Chinese government officials I have spoken to over the years wanted no part of the Russian experiment. So far they have gambled correctly, providing two decades of spectacular growth while maintaining a rigid one-party control. China has also been quite successful in erasing generational memories. Young adults are reported to have little knowledge — or perhaps interest in — the Tiananmen Square uprising, where hundreds if not thousands of Chinese citizens were killed by soldiers. While this event looms large in the international imagination, it’s hardly a footnote in the Chinese curriculum.

I have watched with interest the anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, pressing for a representative democracy rather than candidates being chosen by Beijing. From what I understand, the agreement between Britain and China is not completely clear on this matter and where there is confusion, Beijing wins.

The current “umbrella” revolution — the device blocks both sun and pepper spray — that shows protestors holding their “mobile light” cell phones in the air and chanting the familiar, “Hand Up, Don’t Shoot” slogan is all the rage on Twitter or whatever the next available outlet when the authorities shut down that platform. This reminds me a little of Occupy Wall Street, which ended not with a bang but a whimper due to a hard winter and an army of cops who acted not very differently than their comrades in Hong Kong.

China is not likely to go after the Hong Kong protestors the way they have persecuted separatists such as the Uyghur Muslims in the west of the country. China’s bubbling ethnic caldron is another matter entirely. There is almost no media coverage on the mainland about China’s repressive treatment of its extensive minority populations. By the way, the Uyghur Muslims are mainly Sunnis.

When Britain returned Hong Kong to China, one joke I heard is that the government should just move the island to Shanghai. In fact, Beijing did move a lot of operations to its main commercial city. Nonetheless, Hong Kong remains a jewel in the crown, a symbol of China’s growing influence, and a commercial opening to the rest of the world. Beijing knows that if the violence escalates in Hong Kong, more countries will decamp to Singapore and elsewhere, as they did after the 1997 agreement.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t bet on that epic fantasy, fondly referred to in Hong Kong and Downing Street as one country/two systems. A s the sun sets on another day of demonstrations in Hong Kong, Beijing is celebrating the sixty-fifth anniversary of the PRC with Olympic-style celebrations in Tiananmen Square, reminding the rest of the world where the center of gravity resides, bloodshed and all.

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