Then and now

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

What are we supposed to feel now that the 10th anniversary of the handover is upon us? Must we see it as an occasion to celebrate by saying Chinese rule has worked? Or do we quietly tell ourselves that it was better under the British? Would it be terribly unpatriotic to accept the present, yet acknowledge the past?

One thing is for sure: Hong Kong 10 years after the British, or 10 years under China - whichever way you look at it - screams out for comparisons. We've already been doing that for many weeks now on TV, radio and in newspapers where key players - past and present - give their take on then and now.

Were you afraid 10 years ago? Are you afraid now? Is Chinese rule working? How come Hong Kong didn't die, as some had feared? Are we being well-governed? Do mass protests, the rich-poor gap, the destruction of our heritage and worsening pollution mean the government has lost touch with the people? Why doesn't Beijing trust us with democracy? What must we do to make it trust us? And on it goes.

The answers have been as predictable as the questions. From the self-proclaimed patriots, we're hearing that the past 10 years have been better than at any time during colonial rule. And from the China-bashers, the worn message is that our rights are on a slippery slope.

But the truth is that it is simply not possible to compare a decade of 'one country, two systems' with 160 years of colonial rule. That would be like asking: who would you rather have - an authoritarian, paternalistic and untrusting boss from your own family, or an outsider who seized the house of your forefathers and forced the generations thereafter into second-class status?

Our first post-handover chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, declared 10 years ago that we had finally become masters of our own house. Our last British governor, Chris Patten, hinted more recently of bad governance, post-1997, by noting that, under his leadership, there were no mass anti-government street protests. Both statements were self-serving, but were they accurate? That depends on how you interpret them. Are Hong Kong people masters of their own house? Yes, but only in the wider context that the motherland had regained control of a colonised Hong Kong. However, if what Mr Tung meant was that Britain's departure would finally allow Hongkongers to run their own house, he's been slapped in the face by National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo , who crudely reminded us recently that the real masters reside in Beijing.

Mr Patten is literally right in that there were no mass protests during his time as governor. He is partially right if, by that, he meant people were generally content under his leadership. But he is reading the people inaccurately if he is asserting that they had happily embraced colonial rule. They preferred colonialism to communism, but never forgot they were Chinese, or that the British had disowned them by refusing them citizenship. Any pollster will tell you that if you asked an average Hongkonger today whether he or she would prefer Mr Patten or Mr Tung, the answer would likely be the former. But if you asked the same person if Hong Kong should have been returned to China, the answer would almost certainly be 'yes'.

The mood of a community changes with the circumstances, hence the pre-handover jitters giving way to today's post-handover confidence. Few would have guessed that the mass exodus leading up to 1997 would turn into a reverse migration.

Likewise, we still have the mass protests - there'll be one this weekend - that spun directly from Mr Tung's poor handling of crises. Yet, these protests are not intended specifically to vent anger at Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who is in fact very popular, as latest polls show.

Mr Patten earned his popularity from his championing of democracy at a time when Hong Kong people feared the heavy hand of the incoming communists. Mr Tung's built-in popularity as the first chief executive quickly vanished when he failed to connect with the people to achieve his lofty goals, and especially when he alienated the community with his open subservience to Beijing.

Mr Tsang's popularity wasn't so much earned as having come by default. The people were relieved to see the back of Mr Tung. But Mr Tsang has earned it now, with his administrative skills and his promise to settle the democracy issue in his new term, which gives the impression that he is less subservient to Beijing.

If the first eight years of 'one country, two systems' were defined by the hopeless inadequacies of the Tung administration - which saw three ministers resign in disgrace - then Mr Tsang can write his own legacy simply by showing that not all chief executives anointed by Beijing, and unelected by the people, are poor leaders.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster.