Friendship stands the test of time

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am

EVERY FOUR YEARS it seems there is only one story in town. 'You are probably thinking of all the people who turned out to see England's first World Cup match,' said British Consul-General Stephen Bradley.

He was responding to a question about Hong Kong's enduring fondness for the United Kingdom, and the diplomat's one-liner contained a great deal of truth.

There are several reasons why Hongkongers might consider the England side to be their unofficial team in Germany, as Mr Bradley explained. 'One hugely important factor is the number of Hong Kong people who have been educated in the UK,' he said. 'A lot of them are now parents and they have children. Many people in Hong Kong are therefore deeply familiar with the UK and, basically, it is their second home. Indeed, many people from Hong Kong own homes in the UK. There's a real sense of closeness that has built up over a long time. And there are nearly 20,000 Hong Kong students studying in Britain today, so this picture is as promising as ever.'

Mr Bradley was one of Britain's first students in post-Mao China. He studied at Shanghai's Fudan University between 1980 and 1981. 'If you study in a foreign country at an impressionable age, a great deal inevitably sinks in. And even if at the time all was not perfect, you do remember all the good things and you are very attached to those years.'

Another factor, Mr Bradley notes, is the state of Britain today. 'The UK has been extremely successful over the past two decades in particular,' he said.

'The 1960s were great fun, but the 1970s were pretty dire. The image of the UK has improved enormously in this time. Yes, tradition is still intact - Beefeaters and Buckingham Palace and all the other symbols of Britishness. But I think people are more conscious now of the modern and youthful side of Britain's image. Today's heroes of Britain tend to be sports people, pop stars, achievers with whom young people can identify. In general, the nation has a more appealing and accessible image now than it had 20 years ago.'

Britain is a famously creative nation, and the nation's arts are well received here. 'There's always a substantial British element in the annual arts festival, and a highlight of this year's event was a performance of The History Boys, which has just won six Tony awards in New York, including best play. So Hong Kong got The History Boys before Broadway did. I think that represents a major coup.'

Next year is an anniversary of great significance: 10 years since the handover. 'We don't have any fixed plan at this stage,' Mr Bradley said. 'We will probably be taking our cue from the HKSAR to see how we can play a role.

'As for the question of what there is to celebrate, well, 10 years after the handover, those pessimists and doubters have been clearly proved wrong. There were some years of economic difficulty, as we well know, but they had nothing to do with the handover and everything to do with the Asian financial crisis. The Hong Kong economy is now doing very well, the British business community here is thriving again, alongside many others.

'The handover basically worked. I don't view this as a particularly, much less exclusively, British achievement. Both the British and Chinese governments stuck to their sides of the deal, and as a consequence this unique event in world history unfolded as well as could be expected.'