A date with destiny or a reminder of lasting mistakes?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2007, 12:00am

Those here at the time will remember the day well for its dark, foreboding skies. The grey added to the gloom of some who dreaded what was about to take place. They saw the ceaseless rain as even the sky crying.

The British had foreseen a possible soggy departure. They issued umbrellas to VIPs attending their outdoor ceremony to bid goodbye to Hong Kong, a transfer of sovereignty that cynics labelled 'the Chinese takeaway'. It was a sombre affair that saw tears gushing down many rain-soaked cheeks.

But even at such times, Hong Kong's famed profit motive remained strong, driving up the souvenir value of the umbrellas. I still have one, but who will now want to pay money for a handover umbrella and the T-shirt in my drawer with '1997' emblazoned across it? Both are faded with age, as are the memories of that momentous event.

If a week is a long time in politics, then 10 years must be an eternity.

As is customary, 10th anniversaries are celebrated with great gusto, marked in sombre mood, or nostalgically remembered, depending on the occasion. We're approaching that milestone of what is arguably the most remarkable event in our political, economic and social history - the June 30, 1997 British handover of sovereignty to China.

Whether there will be a repeat of the merciless rain, only the sky knows. But aside from the routine fanfare of fireworks, patriotism, parades and variety shows, how should we mark the occasion?

Jumping the gun on the people's mood, the Democratic Party has released survey results showing most are unimpressed with the government's achievements since the handover. Many of those polled said there had been no improvement in the quality of life and things had actually worsened in areas such as education, fairer sharing of wealth and government collusion with big business.

When the parades start, and medal-winning mainland athletes come here to instil patriotic pride, will the summer celebrations make people stand tall as Hongkongers, or will it make at least some wonder if such fleeting displays can mask the mistakes of the past 10 years?

A good place to ask yourself this is at the soon-to-die Queen's Pier. There, you can see the Convention Centre, where the handover ceremony took place and Tamar, where the British had their soggy farewell, and from where the last governor, Chris Patten, departed.

But more importantly, that is where you can see the scaffolding covering the sad remains of the cherished Star Ferry pier. If you're looking for government failures, this is the latest and most visible. A protest sign still hangs by the destroyed pier: 'Donald Tsang, are you listening?'

The same was asked many times and on many issues of Tung Chee-hwa, the first post-handover chief executive. The consequences of him not listening were street protests by hundreds of thousands which drove from office some of his top ministers, and finally himself.

If you think about it, despite Mr Tung's grand talk about the handover making us masters of our own house, it's been a pretty tumultuous 10 years, marked by near financial collapse, the mishandling of a mystery killer disease, a botched effort to bring in national security laws, widespread public discontent and the resignation of a chief executive.

The people now actually feel more alienated from the government than ever before.

Instead of parades and such, maybe our leaders should consider a more meaningful way to celebrate the fact that Hong Kong is now a part of China: take the lead in making us stand tall as Hongkongers who are genuinely in charge of our own destiny.

Michael Chugani is editor-in-chief of ATV English News and Current Affairs. mchugani@atv.com.hk