6th July 1997


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Dragons and Lions: two faces of Hong Kong

By afdhel aziz in Hong Kong

Sunday 6:45 pm, Kowloon Tong:-Standing on the streets of Hong Kong , I am intensely aware of the old and the new; the past and the future. Behind me the towering edifice of the Bank of China building, a shining symbol of the colony's future as an economic powerhouse. On the pavement next to me, an old woman selling rice cakes.

It's a cliche I know, but as with so many cliches it sums up a situation beautifully. Four hundred square miles. 6.8 million people. The world's eighth largest trading economy. The seventh largest foreign currency reserves in the world. 1 in 4 of Hong Kong's young people go into higher education; life expectancy is second only to Japan; child mortality is lower than the US, Germany or Australia. More Rolls Royces and mobile phones per square mile than any other country in the world. A per capita income and a GNP that is amongst the highest in Asia. What makes it tick ?

Former British Governor Chris Patten is of the view that it is as much the political freedoms that Hong Kong enjoys as the economic freedoms that make it such a successful society. Things like a free press , an independent judiciary , and an assurance of basic human and civil rights. Therefore it is with concern that China's actions in the recent past have been met in many quarters. Actions that include creating a provisional legislature and the decision to scrap the Bill of Rights and the colony's Societies and Public Order ordinances - presumably to avoid another Tiananmen Square-style gathering. Confusingly though, under the Joint Declaration, the treaty under which sovereignty returns to China, economic and political rights have been guaranteed for fifty years beyond 1997. Outwardly it would seem that the end is the same - it is only the means that are drastically different.

One of the most astounding facts that I discovered while doing some research for this trip is that the British did not actually have to give back the whole of Hong Kong. Britain got the island of Hong Kong through the First Opium War, while in 1860 the Second Opium War gave them the three and a quarter square miles of the Kowloon Peninsula. By 1898, through intimidation just short of war, Peking was forced to lease Britain 370 square miles of the upper Peninsula - the area now known as the New Territories. But in 1979, Deng Xiaoping made it clear that China wanted back the entire territory in 1997 when the lease expired - not just the New Territories. London ceded gracefully-almost too gracefully , for some critics. The problem seemed to be that the industrial and commercial centre could not operate without the New Territories-but leaving aside that issue, critics assert that Britain could have got more assurances and commitments from China before giving in so quickly.

But Hong Kong depends on China for water , food , and power.

Hong Kong is also the single largest investor in the whole of China , billions of dollars invested in manufacturing plants and infrastructure scattered all over the affluent Pearl Delta across the border, and all over the coastal provinces. Under the circumstances, Britain, no longer in a position to negotiate with the behemoth that is China , had no other alternative than to capitulate as gracefully as it could.

Monday 11:13 am Sha Tin, New Territories:-The humidity hits you like a slap in the face. It is a crippling eighty eight percent and my shirt is soaked after a five minutes walk. In chilling contrast are the public rail stations and shopping malls, bone-freezing air conditioning turned up to full blast. The chirps of cellular phones go off everywhere

Aside from Tokyo, this must be the most fashion conscious city in Asia.

Tuesday 3:39 pm Tsim Sha Tsui:- The party is over. Millions of dollars have been spent on fireworks, which blew themselves out in a frenzied paroxysm of patriotic fervour over our heads. All the antique junks, the floats and the fire engines have all been returned to their storage. The banquets are over and the foreign dignitaries are all on their way home - all but those whose wives have insisted on doing a little shopping . Now begins the long, wary wait as the people of Hong Kong try to figure out what comes next . The tanks rolled in on the early hours of Tuesday morning, soldiers waving their white gloved hands to the few who had turned up, braving the grim shower that pattered down. Last night saw scuffles between pro- democracy advocates and police but no big confrontations took place. Today on bustling Nathan Road , it's business as usual , the art of the hustle being continually perfected and refined.

There are new flags displayed infrequently, both the bahunia, the national flower of Hong Kong and the starred red of China and there is an air of celebration in the city - perhaps because Monday,Tuesday and Wednesday have been declared official holidays .

I head out to find more about what the Sri Lankan community in the city is thinking. There are approximately one thousand Sri Lankan families living in Hong Kong , whose heads work in the professional, academic and business sectors. There are a further three thousand who work as domestic servants , in an environment which is reputed to be one of the best in Asia . An additional three hundred or so apparently work in the construction of the new airport tunnel.

Dr. Kumar David is the head of the department of Electrical Engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic and someone for whom the Handover has particular interest for him as a Sri Lankan. "The concept of a Special Autonomous Region has special significance for Sri Lanka, in several aspects. It shows how two disparate entities can occupy the same nation An elegant process, which places economic independence at the head of the list, and prioritises other aspects of government after it.

While Sri Lanka certainly cannot deal with the concept of having two different central banks for instance, as Hong Kong and China have agreed to do , the freedom to act as an independent port in such questions as customs and trade tariffs for instance, is something that could be applied to whatever administrative region that is being put forward as part of the political solution to the ethnic conflict," he says. Another Sri Lankan resident in Hong Kong is Andrew Hanibelsz , director of Esanam East Asia, a company which deals in disparate forms of ad hoc research for institutional fund managers. "There seems to be two different attitudes displayed by the Hong Kong Chinese towards the handover. Externally they are cautiously optimistic about the prospects , but internally, privately, amongst their families they feel nervous about their future."

Hong Kong Chinese are also at a disadvantage where language is concerned. Cantonese, the main Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong is not taught as a written language - it exists primarily in the verbal form . Mandarin Chinese hasn't been taught in this country with the same intensity as in Singapore for example, where there has been a government initiative to teach Mandarin at all levels of society for the past couple of decades . It is only in the past five years or so that Hong Kong businessmen have recognised the importance of learning the language. The standard of English has declined considerably in the last ten years - the students may learn how to read and write it but they still don't think in it. The impact that this could have on business relations with China may not turn out to be that significant - but one fact that every single newscast about the Handover ceremonies never failed to mention was that the swearing in proceedings were carried out entirely in Mandarin, with nary a jot of Cantonese being spoken - except for Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa's inaugural speech . In fact some of the judges being sworn in requested that their oaths be administered in - irony of ironies - English.

From a colonialist point of view, all this hullabaloo seems a bit late. India , Pakistan and Sri Lanka gained independence fifty years ago. The British are only letting go now. But the smugness is erased when you think of how developed Hong Kong is and what our current economic outlook is like. It seems that the business acumen of the 'nation of shopkeepers' blended marvellously with the Chinese ability to make fortunes out of anything to create the trading behemoth that is the colony. What could be the possible nature of that future relationship?

A remora is a little animal which clings to the flanks of sharks , engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the predator . There are those who hold the view that Hong Kong will become a remora on the great shark that is China - acting as a storefront while the mainland acts as the world's biggest factory. Hong Kong will become the crown, the financial jewel in China's economic policy, spearheading investment and jobs in the mainland. All because of some ancient treaty signed ages ago , before Tony Blair was a wiggling gamete and Tung Chee Hwa was a glint in his daddy's eye.

Such corporate synergy could create a manufacturing power that could put Korea's mighty chaebols or Japan's all encompassing keiretsu to shame. The formal combination of a seemingly unlimited workforce and the sharpest business minds on the Pacific Rim could be seemingly unstoppable. But there are vast contrasts in the management styles of the two future partners; formulaic versus laissez faire ; dogmatic versus an almost fanatical hyperpragmatism. Which will win ? Theorists are of the view that either Hong Kong will irreversibly change the face of China - or that the colony will be swallowed whole, like Jonah into the belly of the whale.

(By arrangement with Business Today)

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