Hong Kong History

By : Christ Patten, on 30/06/97

Chinese Version

In the hall of Government House hangs a picture by one of my favorite young Hong Kong artists, Wang Hai. It is called 'Hong Kong History'. It is a dark, brooding picture, with only the slightest touches of colour in it to tell you that it is not simply an enlargement of a black-and-white photograph from the time depicted, October 1910. The occasion it shows is the last visit that Mandarins from Imperial China made to Hong Kong, for the opening of the Kowloon-Canton railway, a development that was to accelerate Hong Kong's growth and by the late 1920s help it to overtake Shanghai in the handling of China's international trade. The Mandarins in their traditional costumes stand around a dignified, elderly, Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi, all looking a little lost, out of place, out of time. At the end of the line, self-assured, hands thrust haughtily into pockets, stands a top-hatted European, the Chairman of the railway company, perhaps. The world he represented would wait until 1941 to be swept away. The world the Mandarins knew would last for only a few months before the 1911 revolution brought down the Ching Dynasty. And, in the date of its composition, June 1989, the painting carries yet another reference to the stirring events that have formed the backdrop to Hong Kong's history.

Since 1898, the year 1997 has been marked down in the calendar as a date of special significance, and today we are all hearing a lot about history. Films are being made, articles written, books published. Two themes tend to predominate, 'End of Empire' and 'Return of the Dragon'. Under the first, Hong Kong is looked at nostalgically, the last significant outpost and one of the most singular successes of Britain's imperial adventure. 1997 is the end of that story. The second theme is also largely about what is ending in 1997: the imperialist, opium-pushing intrusion into China, the end of humiliations inflicted on a weak Chinese government in the nineteenth century. It is very easy to become partisan on either of these interpretations, to overlook the truth in each, to overlook Hong Kong's own history, to overlook what Hong Kong now is.

Whatever the arguments about the rights and wrongs of the imperialist past, what has happened in Hong Kong is the coming together of two civilizations. The mostly Chinese men and women of this community have drawn on their own culture, but also on the ideas, the laws, the education and the arts of many other lands, adopting and adapting them to the growing needs of this city and its people. They have fashioned their own, usually successful solutions to maintaining a lively, harmonious society under unparalleled constraints of space and population density. This is not the debris from the collision of two civilizations but a new creation of them, offering fresh ideas to both.

What I've written so far begs some statement about what I think Hong Kong is like today. The statistics on that are to be found copiously throughout the rest of this book. But figures need to be fleshed out. I find my thoughts drawn back often to two very personal moments. One was shortly after my arrival as Governor here in 1992, when I was finding out about welfare services. On a hot, wet day in July, I had been to a rehabilitation centre and emerged to find a number of parents of handicapped children waiting in the rain to petition me. I was struck by their patience, by the moderation of their requests compared to the difficulties they faced, by their love and concern for their children. Those are qualities that I have met time and time again here. The moderation, particularly in the politics, is remarkable given the extraordinary changes that Hong Kong has experienced and is going through. It is a testimony, also, to the social stability that has been fostered in Hong Kong through deliberate change in response to social need. The second event was more traumatic, seeing the families of those who had died or been injured in the terrible fire at the Garley Building, poor people devastated by the loss of children, brothers, sisters. It was a salutary reminder that while the boosters of Hong Kong, myself included, often talk about how median incomes here have exceeded US$5,000 a head, the majority of Hong Kong's citizens have not attained that level of comfort, that their hopes for the future are not founded on financial resources but on prospects for their sons and daughters, on the exchanges and satisfactions of family life.

The glitzy of society life, the full throttle thunder of economic activity, the fascination of living on the edge of the extraordinary changes that have swept through China over the past 150 years, all those things tend to take the eye away from a vital part of Hong Kong's story, the creation of a resilient, sophisticated, highly educated society, ambitious to improve the lot of its members, caring to those in need, offering freedom to exercise abilities. How many would have predicted such an outcome from a community of refugees and merchant venturers ruled over by a colonial power? How many realize how important it is to Hong Kong's present success and future prospects?

Economic opportunity has been indispensable to Hong Kong, but without the freedom and ability to take and to create that opportunity it would have meant little. Investment in education has been of greater importance than equities, while civil liberties have become inextricably linked with the success of the economic liberties this city affords. And it is worth asking how far history, or rather the fact that people coming here have been able to leave old histories behind them and start again, has been important to the shaping of this society. That is not to suggest that people here have forgotten their pasts, no-one does that. Memories of home towns from Hankow and Santau to Bombay and Arbroath have been brought here, but the liberty that Hong Kong has offered to people to live at peace with the past has not been the least of the freedoms that it has given.

To ask China to forget the colonial episode is no more realistic than to expect local people to have any deep commitment to a colonial administration, an administration that, despite near-complete localization, could never become 'our government' in the way that 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong' might do if the words are allowed to mean what they say. But when the convenient paper target of the last veneer of colonial rule is peeled away with my departure at midnight on the 30th of June, there is an opportunity to look afresh at what lies underneath. And what is that? Not some seething pot of repressed ambitions, conflicting ideologies and burning grievances, but a mature, well-balanced society. A society that has argued cogently and successfully for a steadily increasing say in the way that it is governed. A community that has developed institutions and procedures through which matters of public interest can be debated and settled openly, through which tensions and difficulties can be detected early and addressed, not repressed. A society in which law is respected because it is developed in harmony with changes in society, through a process that is understood and accepted by the community, and because it is upheld impartially. A city that is tolerant of different ideas, so is able to respond smoothly and promptly to changing conditions. A place that by safeguarding the liberties of every one of its citizens can be invigorated by each in return.

Hong Kong remains a community with many problems. We face distortions and disparities in housing, discrimination against the handicapped and new immigrants, demands to improve primary and secondary education. Doubtless when those matters have been addressed, others will have emerged to be debated and resolved. But there can be no doubt that Hong Kong has the ability, the ideas, the resources, the tested mechanisms of public administration, to deal competently with whatever conditions arise locally. The real difficulties for Hong Kong will only come from local laws and institutions being warped to suit external pressures and demands, and so becoming less sensitive to local needs and conditions. It is my hope, it must be the hope of anyone who cares for Hong Kong, that no such threat attains reality.

Hong Kong, for all its imperfections, is a window on the future, for China, for the region. It is an island of stability and social progress, a model for anyone seeking to build a peaceful, prosperous and successful community. It would be a tragedy for far more than Hong Kong if anyone who has a hand in shaping Hong Kong's history today is blinded to that by remembrance of things past. Looking back at history can be an uncomfortable experience at the best of times, but the dangers come not from forgetting but from making history a tool of ideology, from attempts to rectify a past that is already fixed, rather than to respond open-heartedly to what the present has to offer, to welcome reconciliation and the building of new things.