13th July 1997

That handover or hangover?

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Another word about Hong Kong, and one of my friends said she will scream. But it is always safer to join the bandwagon.

The Hong Kong tearjerker is now behind us. Chris Patten, handsome man that he is , cried. Chris Patten’s daughters cried too. While the women swooned about Chris, the men thought the daughters were a pretty picture. Media hype has never had such a massive feel-sad party.

The world media is synonymous with hype. But was it total accident that the Hong Kong handover was picked by the hype-mechanics for the worst media overkill since time began? ( Since we are into hype here, pardon the Hong Kong style exuberance on my part.)

When the lease was signed a hundred years ago, the British were on the ascendant. The wan likes of Prince Charles had not even been born. At that time, the British were in the habit of thinking that things like leases were clever arrangements. Nobody probably seriously thought that Hong Kong will actually go back to the Chinese a hundred years later...

What could the Western club do under the circumstances, when Hong Kong was reverting right back? Tear up the lease agreement? Hardly gentlemanly and British-like, particularly when there is no choice in the matter.

So, the story of the Western media overkill was born. For one thing, the loss of Hong Kong was a collective loss for the Western powers, because though the Cold War was over, China had still not become a member of the club.

One part of the media hype over Hong Kong would have been borne out of the pure unadulterated sentiment of sorrow. The West just couldn’t let go, and the sense of loss was hence far out of proportion with the actual “loss’’ that the club of Western powers suffered as a result of Hong Kong’s return to China.

But, that was not all. The central thrust of the Western media machine, was to portray the Hong Kong take-over as something more than a mere passing of territory from the rule of one power to another. There was no question that the handover of Hong Kong was of considerable political import. Does that mean that the event should be blown up to epic proportions that would make Cecil B de Mille want to blush?

By injecting so much hype into the event, the Western media seemed to want to make sure that the event was seen globally as a poignant one. The event was, in other words, portrayed as a necessary evil. For instance, one of the major channels at one point let it be known that “Beijing is celebrating the handover in a big way because the city had nothing to celebrate for the last fifty years.”

Eventually, the event was portrayed as so sad and poignant that it ended up being funny. The overkill seemed to expose what the collective Western media was constrained to say. Which is that the handover of Hong Kong “was a sad event for the West. ‘’That’s because it was a concession of one limb of the pervasive Western influence.

By exaggerating the importance of the event, the Western media seemed to be imparting the message that the West is not “abandoning Hong Kong’’ despite the handover. It was akin to the customary human nod towards immortality. All human beings pass into the great beyond, but they cannot resist the attempt to immortalise themselves by leaving a part of them behind. Hence, the drive to mould a son in one’s own image, or to pass on a unique skill.

With Hong Kong, the West wanted to make sure that the world got a message. Which was that Britain was leaving Hong Kong only because it was the done thing, and that the British had done so much good in Hong Kong that China will have nothing to worry about despite the “demise’’ of British rule.

Which is also why, in the final analysis, after the last bugle had sounded, it appeared that the handover was more like a hangover. The Western media was “hungover” about Hong Kong because the West was “hungover’’ about Hong Kong. No matter that the British had a long time to prepare for this hangover.

Ignored amid the noise and the stilted panoply was the fact that China was regaining its own territory and that this was not some kind of magnanimous cession of land. There was obviously something to be said about the fact that there were palpable differences in the two systems. But also, China now has a laissez-faire system, even though its approach to governance may tangibly be different to the style of the West.

Perhaps, part of the reason for the media blitz was to legitimise future Western interest in Hong Kong. The West, seemed to have “prescribed” its interests in Hong Kong in a oblique way, to use legalese. In the law of property, long and uninterrupted use of land which is not of a subordinate character ( such as tenancy) gives cause for “prescription’ or the legal right to acquire another’s land as ones own. Britain couldn’t prescribe Hong Kong, as there was a lease agreement, and therefore their interest in the territory was only of a subordinate character. But, since the land was China’s, the West did the next best thing, which was to use hyperbole in the media to say that Britain had “prescribed’’ a certain interest to Hong Kong. A legitimate right to retain some continuity, although in a vicarious way of course.

It is known that hangovers do tend to have a queer effect on brains.

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