Still a struggle for hearts and minds

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am


The night is forever in my memory. It was June 30, midnight to be exact. Standing in Tiananmen Square, among a jubilant crowd of tens of thousands of performers representing all of China's 54 ethnic groups, I saw their beaming smiles, heard their resounding cheers like peals of thunder and felt the warmth of the magnificent fireworks. Yet I failed to share their heartfelt laughter and cheerful voices.

As a Hong Kong reporter sent to Beijing to cover the handover ceremony of the city's return to China, a voice inside kept reminding me: calm down. As a journalist, I was supposed to be dispassionate. But, like many other Hongkongers, I felt that what was awaiting was a future not ours to see - even with Beijing's solemn promise of 'one country, two systems'.

Adding to my unease was what I had learned earlier that day from my Hong Kong colleagues when I called the newsroom.

'How do you guys feel'? I asked.

'Too busy to think,' came the reply from one. 'I'll have more time when I die! Who has the luxury to think, and I don't want to think about it anyway. By the way, it's pouring here, with lightning and thunder. What a day.'

'What?' I replied. 'The sun is shining here in Beijing.'

In Chinese culture, we believe one's mood is affected by the weather. No wonder it was all joy in Beijing. But from my phone conversation I felt how perturbed my Hong Kong colleagues were, and I was too.

The day after the lowering of the Union Flag and the departure of the British, the sky in Hong Kong cleared and the night of July 1 saw an extravagant fireworks display that burned through more than HK$100 million.

For the people of Hong Kong it had seemed like a year of too many spectacular firework shows. There was the New Year celebration on the first day of 1997; the February Lunar New Year celebration; the April completion of the world's longest suspension bridge for road and rail traffic at Tsing Ma, which leads to Chek Lap Kok airport, once the subject of a Sino-British row for its HK$155 billion price tag; and finally, of course, that historic moment of Hong Kong's return to the motherland.

Three months later came another fireworks display - the first official celebration of the October 1 National Day of the People's Republic of China in the former British colony.

As fireworks lit up the night sky in Hong Kong on July 1, a question loomed - would the city keep shining as the Pearl of the Orient in the years ahead?

Behind the colourful celebrations, the uneasiness in the city was obvious, and Beijing knew it too. Then-vice-premier Qian Qichen, who was also in charge of Hong Kong affairs, said during a high-level meeting soon after the handover that after regaining sovereignty, Beijing's most pressing task was to 'get the hearts of Hong Kong people back'.

Fifteen years have passed and, through ups and downs, the city has remained prosperous, at least according to the numbers. It has a GDP of US$45,000 per capita, compared with that of about US$4,300 on the mainland. Yet in 15 years, while Hong Kong has worked to maintain its place as the most cosmopolitan Chinese city and the financial centre of the region, China has become the world's second-largest economy.

During that time, Hong Kong has grown by a million people to reach a population of seven million. Walking the streets or visiting various malls in this 'paradise of shopping' or in our offices, it's easy to hear Putonghua-speaking people around us - mainlanders working in or visiting Hong Kong.

Our police and immigration officers, once specially trained to block an expected flood of illegal immigrants after 1997, had no need for their skills. Instead, Hong Kong voluntarily reached out its arms to welcome mainlanders after 2003 to boost tourism in what was then a Sars-scarred city.

Back in the early 1980s, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping promised that capitalist Hong Kong was to remain 'unchanged' for 50 years. That may be true, but have the hearts of Hong Kong people returned to the motherland?

That is the million-dollar question. If there is a stumbling block, it is in the interpretation of the key phrase 'one country, two systems'. Beijing emphasises the 'one country' side of that phrase. One country shall preside over 'two systems', meaning Hong Kong people need to recognise Beijing's sovereignty and authority over Hong Kong, or there won't be 'two systems'. But to many in Hong Kong, 'two systems' is equally important, meaning that Beijing should stay away from Hong Kong's internal matters.

We have already seen many controversies over the National People's Congress' interpretations of Hong Kong's Basic Law: the issue of right of abode; Hong Kong's constitutional development and a timetable for universal suffrage; chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's high-profile visit to the central government's liaison office the day after he won the election, prompting concern that Beijing may have more active involvement in internal affairs. We've also seen Hongkongers, and a growing number of young people, flocking to Victoria Park every June 4 to participate in the candle-light vigils in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for democracy in 1989. And Hong Kong has voiced its support for Liu Xiaobo, Cheng Guangchen and others, who are dissidents in the eyes of Beijing.

Yet Hong Kong's care and generosity towards the motherland have never changed.

The disastrous 1991 flood in eastern China saw more than HK$100 million in donations from the city. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake the city raised hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and supplies. Many volunteers and medical and rescue teams from Hong Kong went to the remote earthquake-struck areas. And in the summer of 2008, Hong Kong people were as proud as all Chinese were for the country's hosting of the Beijing Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has long been the leading foreign investor in the mainland, before and since 1997.

The sometimes contradictory way we celebrate July 1 may best illustrate what Hong Kong is like. After the morning handover ceremony - but before the fireworks at night - the afternoon is always marked by a march calling for democracy.

The rally has become an annual platform for promoting and preserving our civil liberties, as well as a venue for people to vent their dissatisfaction with the government.

The July 1 rally, originally organised by the pan-democratic groups, turned into an annual ritual after 2003. More than 500,000 people took to the streets to protest against the legislation to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law, which requires Hong Kong to safeguard national security. It was a law viewed by many as a ban on the freedoms people have long enjoyed. The protesters also expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the government's poor handling of the Asian economic crisis and the Sars epidemic. Then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa resigned in March 2005.

So how do we judge whether the 'hearts of Hong Kong people' have returned to the motherland?

If you consider that the integration of Hong Kong and the mainland has reached a new stage, you would have to say they have. For the first time, Hong Kong has been included in the nation's five-year development plan, meaning Beijing has put Hong Kong on the map when designing its strategic projects. Meanwhile, incoming chief executive C.Y. Leung has created a new senior post, deputy financial secretary, whose major duty will be to supervise and implement Hong Kong-mainland economic exchanges. These include the 12th national five-year plan and other supporting measures granted by the central government under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement.

As China grows ever stronger economically, Hong Kong tends to be more dependent on the mainland. This unfortunately has caused new tensions.

The recent war of words in which Hongkongers called mainlanders 'locusts' and mainlanders referred to Hongkongers as 'running dogs of the British' was a warning signal. These scurrilous accusations are inappropriate. But Hong Kong can take pride in 'the core values' of this city: democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Hong Kong is a city sandwiched between Chinese culture and Western values. Now, after 15 years, the question is, where will it go next?

Again, take a look at July 1, and the answer is there: an end to a century-and-a-half of British colonial rule is something worth celebrating.

But if Hong Kong is to stay on the right path for greater prosperity and more civil liberties it needs the efforts of all, and the firm determination of Hong Kong people and Beijing to stick to the one country, two systems approach.

Hongkongers are proud of a stronger China, but also sincerely wish the motherland was more democratic, with an improved rule of law and a freer media. Hong Kong people truly believe that a more democratic and open China is vital for the long-term prosperity of Hong Kong and the nation as a whole.

It's no wonder that on July 1 the city celebrates in the morning, protests in the afternoon and comes together for the fireworks in the evening. Under the booming, multi-coloured shower of fireworks, we cheer for a better tomorrow and share the same wish: to keep Hong Kong dynamic, full of life and colour; keep it unique, plural and irreplaceable.

Where do the hearts of Hong Kong people belong? With the motherland, and with freedom too.