Hong Kong handover: From a rain-soaked night to a plethora of legal challenges
The real story would come after the handover, in particular how the legal system would adapt to the new situation under Chinese sovereignty
Where was I at midnight on June 30, 1997? Not where I wanted to be. At the historic moment when the clock struck, ending more than 150 years of colonial rule in Hong Kong, I was standing outside a bar in Hung Hom.
Yes, outside the bar in the pouring rain. I was getting drenched and I didn’t even have a drink. I peered through a rain-splattered window at a television in the corner of the bar and could just about make out the British flag being lowered. It was not the most auspicious start.
I was in Hung Hom to cover the meeting between then British prime minister Tony Blair and Chinese president Jiang Zemin.
This was a fruitless assignment. I couldn’t get anywhere near them.
A few of us naively tried going up in the lift to their floor where we were immediately confronted by security guards with big smiles and even bigger muscles. All I could do was file some colour and quotes already gathered by a colleague from the protesters outside. I didn’t even get a byline.
Never mind. For me, the whole handover event was a colour story anyway. As a court reporter working for the South China Morning Post, I knew that the real story was yet to come. The run-up to the big day had seen a rush to put arrangements in place (and to finish the roof of the new convention centre). But from July 1 onwards, the new constitutional framework was going to be put to the test. And the courts would be the battleground.
But all that lay ahead. What surprises me most when I think back to that time is how little we knew about what would happen after Hong Kong returned to China. It was a leap in the dark and I was leaping with it. I recall walking around the villages of Mui Wo, where I lived, during the Lunar New Year holiday in 1997. I took a good look around, taking in the peach blossom, the orange trees and the bright decorations. I wondered if this would be the last time I would enjoy such festivities.
Who knew where I would be in a year’s time? Television images of the PLA’s armoured cars sweeping across the border into Hong Kong did not fill me with confidence. But then they disappeared into their barracks and have not emerged since. Initial concerns were quickly dispelled.
This was the time of Britpop and nights out in Lan Kwai Fong. Club 64 and Post 97 were regular haunts. It was an exciting year for me, and not just because of the handover. I was married that March, at the Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry, with the colonial crest overhead. A new era indeed!
Hong Kong was full of journalists, here to witness the great event. But for me, it was a frustrating time professionally. It was not easy to get prominence for my good, old-fashioned court stories amid all the attention on weightier matters. I told my team to try their best to get the word “handover” into their court reports in the hope of grabbing the editor’s attention. This was not easy to do, but a look through the archives shows I managed it quite a few times.
The impact of the handover on the legal system also provided plenty to write about. The judges would be keeping their hair on (the traditional wigs stayed after the handover). Queen’s Counsel would become Senior Counsel, but were still allowed to use QC after their names if they wanted. (I loved the SCMP headline “To QC or not QC”.) Then there was the rather confusing change of court names. We reported on the last Hong Kong case to be heard by the Privy Council and – some time later – the first to be heard by the newly created Court of Final Appeal.
But some things didn’t change. I have to chuckle when I recall that my first court story after the change of sovereignty was about an American tourist who had marked the occasion by running naked through Wan Chai. We reported that he had been given a dressing down by the judge. A dressing gown would have served him better.
Time has passed quickly. I now have two sons approaching adulthood and have witnessed many more Lunar New Year festivities. I have often been asked whether the “one country, two systems” concept has been a success. Well, it depends on your expectations. There were concerns that the June 4 vigil, marking the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, would not be permitted after the handover. But it has been going strong for the last 20 years.
Some feared corruption would become endemic in Hong Kong, returning the city to the bad old days of the 1970s. That has not happened, despite the jailing of one ex-chief executive of Hong Kong and his chief secretary.
There are genuine threats and worries which deserve attention. But then again, there always were. I am still here two decades later and, on a personal level, that tells me things can’t have been too bad. Hong Kong was – and remains – an extraordinary city in which to live. The central government would be well advised to ensure that continues. As for the future, who can say? I hope, at least, that when the time comes to mark the 20th anniversary, I will be inside a bar instead of out in the rain.