Watching the continuing protests in Hong Kong, now in their fourth month, brings back vivid memories of another, distant era when, for visitors like me, the then-Crown Colony was a fascinating, tantalizing mixture of East and West.
It was more than half a century ago, in January 1967, when I stopped in Hong Kong en route to Bangkok for my initial assignment in the Foreign Service. I’d never ventured outside the United States before and was bowled over by the sights, sounds and smells of this small, teeming island group off the tip of mainland China.
The British still ruled Hong Kong then, and would for another three decades; their influence was not only in the language — nearly everyone I encountered seemed to speak the Queen’s English — but also in a free press, august banks, a thriving economy, respected courts and competent administration.
Most of the residents (about 4 million then, 7 million today) were ethnic Chinese. They brought the untold richness of China’s ancient civilization. Take cuisine, for example. Having dinner at a famed Chinese restaurant with a Foreign Service classmate and other friends, we were each invited to select a dish from the extensive menu. When I came up with nothing more imaginative than sweet and sour pork — the one Chinese cafe in my hometown had a basic menu — others quickly provided the guidance I clearly needed. (I did better on future visits).
Hong Kong then was also one of world’s best shopping emporiums, offering great bargains in everything from TVs, radios and cameras to tailor-made suits, shirts and shoes. The saying was that you could go broke saving money in Hong Kong. For the American and British sailors whose ships made frequent port calls, there were convenient Navy post offices to ship it all home.
The banks were among the most prestigious in the world. In 1968, my future wife, Linda, then a college student, went to one of them to transfer money from her hometown bank in Foley, Minn. The Chinese tellers conferred in a backroom, returning to say, “State Bank of Foley very small bank.” Still, the transaction went through.
From the commanding heights of the Victoria Peak area, where most of the British establishment lived, the view of the city and its storied harbor was breathtaking. Life was good. A novel about a British judge who made his home in the colony was titled “Old FILTH,” with the acronym standing for, “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Many did; some thrived.
Dropping by a half-dozen times from the late ’60s to the early ’80s from my posts in Thailand and Vietnam, I saw Hong Kong as a great place to visit. It was exotic but also peaceful, prosperous and well-run. No doubt it felt quite different to the Chinese majority, who got to share in few of the riches and were ruled by an imperial power half a world away.
London relinquished control to China in 1997, fulfilling 19th-century treaty obligations but not leaving their former charges the future they sought.
Hong Kong residents have fared relatively well economically in the two decades since, with local per capita income now better than four times the average for the rest of China. Income distribution remains even more skewed than our own, however. But even more than redressing this disparity, what the protesters manning the barricades in the streets are demanding is political freedom — democracy.
Hong Kongers knew a limited version of it under the British, and now they want the real thing. They’d like to make their own choices, to govern themselves. They see recent repressive measures by Beijing as a giant step backward, toward authoritarian government and restricted rights, away from self-rule and democratic rights.
While that’s the view from the Star Ferry crossing the harbor between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, Beijing sees a rebellious region that needs to be brought to heel, lest the contagion spread to other parts of the country. Its instinct is to suppress the protests, but it doesn’t want to stifle the region’s booming economy. (Hong Kong remains one of the world’s premier banking and trading centers, a vital source of revenue for China’s central government and its business tycoons.)
It’s not at all clear whether or how these differences can be reconciled. But China’s ambitions for a leading role in the world may well depend on finding a peaceful solution to the contradictions in the “one country, two systems” riddle agreed to when Britain returned Hong Kong to China. Can this circle be squared?
Dick Virden, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, lives in Plymouth. He is at email@example.com.