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1997: the big picture

Tim Hamlett

THE FATE OF HONGKONG By Gerald Segal (Simon & Schuster, $150) SO many people have dipped their bread in the gravy formed by our problematic future that it would be churlish to begrudge Gerald Segal a thumping bestseller. He is at least a seeker after truth.

This book contains no riots, no secret agents, no nuclear meltdowns, no sloe-eyed Mata Haris, no corrupt policemen, no restaurant fires, no typhoons and no triads. It is not a Hongkong novel. It is an attempt at sober analysis.

Virtue, alas, is often boring, and Mr Segal, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, can be accused of capturing everything about Hongkong except the excitement.

More learned pens than mine will decide in other places whether this book would have been welcome if it had been published in sober hard covers by a university press.

Readers who are tempted by what appears to be a brisk paperback in a pretty cover may well find this is a book best read in bed. Then they will not fall over if they fall asleep.

This is the sort of book Henry Kissinger used to produce before Richard Nixon gave him real bombers to play with.


It involves academic analysis of current international relations. Since the analyst has to compete with professionals who are either diplomats or soldiers it is customary to adopt a thoroughly pragmatic and amoral approach to the work.

Countries are treated as individual and monolithic entities. Thus ''China's interests'' will be discussed without any attempt to specify whether this means the interests of China's rulers, China's people, China's businessmen, or just a larger China on the map.

It is assumed that all states follow their interests as they perceive them. The moral dilemmas of foreign policy are ignored.

Toilers in this particular vineyard enjoy one dispensation not offered to other academics: they can invoke ''Chatham House Rules''. This is the learned euphemism for what journalists call using unnamed sources.


The theory is that the researcher can under these conditions persuade officials to talk frankly. But he cannot report who said what. The effect is disconcerting.

We are given chapter and verse in footnotes for public information on economics and trade which most people would be prepared to take on trust.


But we are offered no source at all for such lurid titbits as: ''In the 1970s there was some talk of China as the 16th member of NATO.'' In which lunatic asylum, one wonders.

Once you accept the limitations of the genre, Mr Segal does a good solid job. He has read widely, thought deeply, and come to many sensible judgements.

Local readers will be confused by his general use of the word ''convergence'', which has acquired a distinct political meaning in recent months. They may feel that they did not need to be told at such length that the main influence on what happens in Hongkong is the Chinese Government. Is this still a necessary corrective to delusions in London? We must also lament Mr Segal's reiteration of the old ''Hongkong political apathy'' line, which is out of date and in any case needs more to substantiate it than the voter turn-out figures, which are mainly a result of Hongkong's curious registration arrangements.


There is a strange schizophrenic quality on the question of immigration. When discussing British views, Mr Segal correctly diagnoses a deep ambiguity in that it is accepted that Hongkong people need to be free to leave (as long as they don't go to Britain) even though the success of the hand-over requires that most stay.

When discussing other countries, particularly Canada, Mr Segal takes the position that people should be forced to stay by the absence of any alternative, and characterises generous immigration policies as mischievous.

If this is really his view it may explain why he neglects the Portuguese Government's one stand on a point of principle in the negotiations over Macau in 1999 - the insistence that all those born on Portuguese territory were entitled to a genuine EEC-worthy passport.


The fact that the Portuguese insisted on this, that the Chinese accepted it, and that no dire consequences ensued makes the British Government's position look timid. As indeed it was.

These may be considered minor blemishes on a wealth of interesting facts and figures.

A more serious drawback for anyone who does not aspire to the world view of such strategists is the absence of any human dimension to Mr Segal's often interesting speculations about the future.

Hongkong is at various times a cog, the tail of a dog, a gateway or a golden goose. Nice metaphors. It would be good to see some occasional acknowledgement that it is also six million people for whom the eventual crashing of gears, dogfight, closing of gates or goose pie mean very serious and immediate effects of a distinctly unmetaphorical kind.

These thoughts are not part of Mr Segal's tour of the world's foreign ministries, which leads to the unsurprising conclusion that nobody cares very much what happens to Hongkong.

An acceptable geopolitical judgement, no doubt. Let them eat convergence.