Saturday, 30 June 2012

Hong Kong: 15 years on

Prince ("ridiculous rigmarole") Charles, and a sniffly Governor Patten.
Hong Kong: June 30 1997
Chris Patten cried, but the rain washed his tears away.
Many others cried not just its last Governor.  For that was the day fifteen years ago at midnight tonight when Hong Kong was handed back to China.  But many and many more, smiled and exulted, as 155 years of British rule came to an end.  Though not China's army, the PLA: they were stony-faced as they stood to rock-like attention in the trucks bringing them across the border from Shenzhen.
And still the rain... so much that it dominated international coverage: the BBC said the "skies were crying for Hong Kong". Chinese media said the rain had come to wash away the "last vestiges of colonialism". (The Hong Kong media, ever pragmatic, simply noted "it rained a lot"...).
We were here in Hong Kong on that day, Mrs Battle and I.  We sat ourselves at a pub in Wanchai, watched the ceremony, a "ridiculous rigmarole" with its "appalling old waxworks" as Prince Charles unforgettably described the ceremony and the Chinese leaders attending.
We watched the troops arrive at stern attention in the back of open trucks, watched the tanks and the armored personnel carriers and the mobile artillery, in lines long, an arresting sight which sent a slight shiver down the spine, buttock-tightening stuff.
But then it disappeared, this army, never to be seen again (or rarely).
And much has changed and little has changed.
Yet I don't recall that we were apprehensive that night, Mrs Battle and I.
Fourteen years before, in Canberra, 1983, I was in the Office of National Assessments, the intelligence analysis body for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.  I had co-written an Assessment of the future of Hong Kong after handover with my old mate Ross Maddock, a colleague from my days in the Australian Embassy in Peking.
This was just after Thatcher had gone to China and agreed with Deng Xiaoping that there would indeed be a handover.  Up to then some had argued that Britain could retain Hong Kong on the basis that the island of Hong Kong had been granted in perpetuity; it was only Kowloon and the New Territories that were on a 99-year lease to expire on June 30th 1997.
Thatcher's visit put paid to that idea; a handover would happen.  The succeeding years would work out what bureaucrats call the "modalities".
Ross and I thought our Assessment was rather "hard-headed".  That is, we were basically pessimistic about post-handover Hong Kong.  Not because we thought that China would breach the conditions of any agreement reached, at least not explicitly.  But because Chinese bureaucrats were brought up in a Leninist-style bureaucratic state and couldn't help interfering, thinking that doing so would be in the best interests of Hong Kong.  They didn't know what made Hong Kong tick: "positive non-interventionism" it was called by Financial Secretary John Cowperthwaite back in 1971. That is, a government set parameters with the rule of law and basic freedoms, provision of infrastructure and so on, while the economy was left to its own devices with market-based decision making. This policy worked pretty well and had put Hong Kong regularly at the top of world economic freedom indexes.
Despite the views we put in that Assessment 14 years before, on the day of the handover itself I didn't feel any anxiety, just interest in what would happen and a hope that the Chinese would keep their hands off. I guess the reason for being so phlegmatic -- despite the earlier "hard-headed" Assessment --  was that the moment had finally arrived, it was here, it couldn't be influenced, at least not by me, and all one could do was hope for the best. If things went wrong, we could simply move back to Australia.
But we haven't had to.  The Chinese government has not interfered, at least overtly.  The only time it has done so is when the Hong Kong government -- unnecessarily in my view -- has sought rulings from Beijing on matters of the Basic Law. Hong Kong has weathered many storms since 1997: the Asian financial crisis of '98, the SARS epidemic, the GFC, all these and yet the economy has purred along, unemployment is down around 4%.  Freedoms of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, freedom in the economy, all have remained intact. [I won't get into the issue here of the influence of the Taipans, the oligopolies and monopolies; income inequality is rising; pollution is terrible;  not all is as rosy and free as we like to think.  But still...]
And for us, for Mrs Battle and me, Hong Kong has been good.  We founded a successful business in 2000, sold it in 2007, and live comfortably.  She works in a high-powered job; I'm retired, travel, sail, build guitars and boats....
Fifteen years further on?  The rain comes down again today from tropical storm Doksuri, just as it did that night in '97.  Maybe that's another omen: this time optimistic, I think. I hope.  And I hope I'm not as wrong about that as I was in the '83 assessment.
For it remains a great city, this.  Vibrant, alive, efficient, convenient, safe, pragmatic, diverse and  beautiful (yes, beautiful).  Hong Kong, the "fragrant harbour, "the city where dreams come true"...
RELATED: "15 things we love and hate about Hong Kong since the handover"
LATER: fun foto:
Lower the Flag; raise the Kilt: 24 April 1997
Later: linked here.