When Chris Patten and the Prince of Wales marked the handover of Britain’s last significant Asian colony to Beijing 10 years ago, I thought economic doom and gloom would descend on this corner of China. It hasn’t and I am pleased for the residents of Hong Kong - many of whom did not want Britain to abandon sovereignty in the first place.
It is often assumed the agreement between the two powers to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule involved the entire territory. It did not. Under the original terms of the ‘lease’, only territory that formed part of the Chinese mainland would be returned: the islands would remain indefinitely under UK rule. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Britain was not going to risk angering an emerging significant world power by adhering to the original terms of an agreement concerning a colony which had lost much of its importance to the mother country.
Hong Kong retains some of the legacies of its former status. Vehicles still drive on what I regard as the correct side of the road; English is an official language and the second most widely spoken tongue; some of the English traditions such as afternoon tea have become part of the social fabric; and Hong Kong has still infinitely more pro-Western sentiment and culture than the rest of China put together.
Economic growth is all well and good, with Beijing conducting a ‘hands-off’ approach when it comes to an economy modelled of Friedman’s principles. On the other hand, there must be a commitment to greater democracy. At present only half of the Hong Kong legislature (containing parties very much to Beijing’s approval) is elected. Under UK rule the colony had full representative government. It was a beacon for Chinese refugees during the 1960s and 1970s. In the thirty years between 1967 and its handover to China, the population grew from 3 to 7 million, swelled by an endless tide of migrants. So much for the ‘evils’ of the British Empire!
Communism is as outdated in China as it is everywhere else. It is to be hoped the gradual economic expansion of that country, led and mentored by the experience of Hong Kong, will be the catalyst by which the death rattle of communist government will be heard.