Commentary Magazine


Hong Kong, by Jan Morris

Epitaph

Hong Kong.
by Jan Morris.
Random House. 359 pp. $19.95.

In Hong Kong, the last great outpost of imperial England, a local TV station has taken to running a weekly series charting the crown’s embarrassing forty-year retreat from holdings that not long ago covered more than a quarter of the earth. Called “End of Empire,” the series opens each week with a touching shot of three lonely soldiers silhouetted against a mountain sunset, lowering the Union Jack to the strains of a slow dirge.

Real life is less kind. With eight or so years remaining before the Hong Kong sun finally sets on the British empire, such trappings as remain of Her Majesty’s once-proud dominion now seem so many stage effects. Where once the mere sighting of the Royal Navy was enough to make the emperor of China quake in his palace, the British governor of Hong Kong is daily lampooned in the local press in a manner that would be inconceivable to any of his predecessors. Even the word “colony” has been expunged from the official vocabulary. As if to symbolize the shift under way, the new Bank of China building (designed by I.M. Pei) today dominates the island skyline.

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Now comes Jan Morris to write the epitaph for what she rightly calls “the busiest, the richest, and the most truly extraordinary of all Chinese cities.” Although she coyly hedges her bets on the territory’s future once Beijing resumes sovereignty in 1997, Morris, the well-known travel writer and author of Pax Britannica, admits that contemplating Hong Kong “is not unlike contemplating the mysteries of death.”

What a death it will be. When the British first acquired Hong Kong as a spoil of the First Opium War in 1842, Lord Palmerston dismissed it in a now-infamous phrase as “a barren rock with hardly a house upon it.” Today British law and Chinese can-do have transformed that rock into a capitalist dynamo of 5.6 million people, with the busiest port on earth and a per-capita income second in Asia only to Japan’s. “There are few places in the world,” notes Morris, “where such a large proportion of the population is at least doing what it wants to do.”

What these people want to do mostly is to go about their business and retain their ways and customs free from the political tempests that have wrought such damage throughout China’s history. It was British Hong Kong that provided the first firm refuge from those storms. Yet if there is one theme that runs throughout Morris’s book it is, ironically, how Chinese the place has remained in spite of the legions of British governors, businessmen, and soldiers who have been running it for years. From the first, Morris writes, Hong Kong “was not like other colonies”:

The Chinese were very different from flexible Bengalis, naive Africans, charming Malays, or frankly hostile Pathans. They infiltrated everything with a peculiar air of self-sufficient calculation, and seemed hardly like subjects at all. Several hundred millions of their compatriots lived just across the water, and they had been brought up one and all in the conviction that every Chinese ever born was superior to every foreigner.

No one could deny that the distinct ethos of Hong Kong owes itself to years of British law and British custom; but in many ways the Hong Kong Chinese are, and rightly consider themselves to be, more Chinese than their cousins in Taiwan or on the mainland. (Even today expatriates living in Hong Kong are amused to learn the Chinese word for them: gwei lo, or foreign devil.) In part this is because, as Morris is at pains to point out, colonial Hong Kong was “the one corner of China which . . . completely escaped” the convulsions of the nationalist revolution, the Kuomintang campaign against ancient Chinese religions, the Communist takeover, and the Cultural Revolution that destroyed every tradition in its path. But in large part it is because the British—in sharp contrast to the Japanese during their brief rule of the island—allowed the Hong Kong Chinese to retain their customs.

In this sense, Hong Kong’s success is a tribute to the universal values upon which Western civilization is founded. The Chinese people have worked like fiends for centuries, but all their sweat and industry benefited only a tiny few until the arrival of Westerners. British administration in particular was tailor-made for the Chinese, as British colonial officials were more or less content to allow everyone to do as before, so long as Her Majesty’s sovereignty was acknowledged and the grosser local practices were abolished. The Chinese were in turn content to let the British handle politics so they could devote themselves to things that were important, such as making their fortunes and advancing their families.

It must be conceded that over the years each side did its respective job quite well; laissez-faire is not a dirty word in Hong Kong. Although British governors reserved more powers for themselves than Genghis Khan ever dreamed of, in practice what made Hong Kong work was the traditional disinclination of the British to invoke these vast powers save in times of extreme emergency. By contrast, the Communist leaders of China, whatever else might be said of them, have never showed a reluctance to invoke power—hence the worry about 1997.

The hands-off approach of the British made a number of people very rich and most people reasonably comfortable. Nobody is more Hong Kong, reports Morris, than a rich Chinese woman sitting in the back of her chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, “all cash and condescension.” Indeed, Morris finds that “a sense of satisfied avarice is pervasive nearly everywhere, because almost everybody makes more money here: the Chinese taxi driver gets far more than his comrade in Guangzhou, the Australian journalist makes far more than his colleague in Sydney”—and Governor David Wilson has a higher salary than Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the Chinese perspective, the average Hong Kong resident makes about twice as much as his cousin in Taiwan and about 27 times as much as his cousins on the mainland.

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In the end, however, all Hong Kong’s riches have not been able to save it from its fate—a reminder of the priority politics must always take over economics. Although generations of British civil servants have administered the territory brilliantly and without destructive political rancor, their paternalistic competence has left their charges singularly unprepared for the transition to Beijing rule. More importantly, the people in both Beijing and London deciding Hong Kong’s future are not those who will have to live with it.

Today it is not so much the terms of the Joint Declaration with China concerning the eventual surrender of Hong Kong as the shameful failure of the British to make good on those terms that is responsible for the fatalism surrounding “the overwhelming fact of 1997.” No one has ever expected much from China, but what not even the most die-hard foe of the accord could have predicted was the degree to which Margaret Thatcher’s Britain would kowtow to the world’s largest Communist nation. Elsewhere Morris has quoted Emerson’s observation that the virtue of the British empire was that it was “more just than kind”; today, here, it is neither.

In Hong Kong Jan Morris does not really delve into why this should be so. What she has done instead is to freeze Hong Kong for a moment in all “its fructifying untidyness, its boisterous lack of privacy, its comforting pandemonium.” In so doing she has provided those who have come to love this peculiar little island with a final portrait, and given those who must see it only from their armchairs some idea of the magnitude of what is being lost.

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