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World: Hong Kong And China--A Feudal Wedding?

  • Stuart Parrott



Hong Kong, 3 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A neglected question in the debate on how Hong Kong will fare after its return to Chinese sovereignty in June is: Will the 6.4 million residents of the British colony and mainland China get along with each other?

The union has been compared to a Chinese feudal wedding between a couple from contrasting backgrounds, each used to different lifestyles, and holding conflicting values and suspicions about each other. To complicate matters, one is rich, the other poor.

China, celebrating what it sees as a proud victory after a century and a half of humiliating colonialism, portrays the marriage in glowing terms. It will mark the July 1 handover with an editorial in the Communist Party newspaper, a TV documentary on Hong Kong's history, and a banquet at the Great Hall of the People.

China is playing up the role of a retired worker from Henan Province who is cycling through 50 cities in northern China to celebrate the return of Hong Kong 155 years after the Union Jack was first raised by an obscure Royal Navy captain.

The man is said to have written Peking Opera songs about how great it is that the Hong Kong Chinese are able to return to their motherland which, when performed, moves many Chinese peasants to tears.

From the other side of the Lo Wu bridge, the main crossover between China proper and Hong Kong's (mainland) new territories, the communist takeover is seen in a far more ambiguous light.

British journalist Simon Winchester says Hong Kong's anxious millions are looking superstitiously for signs in an attempt to find out what exactly is in store for them and their booming capitalist society.

Aside from fear about the loss of liberties and free speech, many in Hong Kong worry about what reunification will mean in practice.

The people of China and Hong Kong are divided not only by wealth, but by education, history and culture. Their mindset is different. Young people know little of each other.

Most people describe them as "Hong Kongers" rather than British or Chinese. They often recognize Chinese identity only after going abroad and seeing China's flag rising at international sports ceremonies.

In Hong Kong, children are told to study hard, behave well, get a profitable job, to accumulate money and buy their own apartments. But in China, capitalism is still described as a rotten and dying society where workers are ruthlessly exploited. Hong Kong journalist Angelica Cheung poses the question: "How will this view be regarded by students in one of the world's most prosperous capitalist cities?"

The issue of history books raises a vexing issue. Cheung says: "How will the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists fled to Taiwan, be characterized? Most of the world regards this as a communist takeover but mainlanders believe it was a "liberation" led by "the savior of the people," Chairman Mao.

And what about the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre? Up to a million shocked Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest the People's Liberation Army crackdown on pro-democracy activists. But Beijing still describes the activists as "an anti-revolutionary movement."

Most Hong Kong schoolteachers do not speak Mandarin, the official language on the mainland. In textbooks, China has been treated as a foreign country, and its history and geography has had little attention. One 10-year-old in a Hong Kong junior school, asked to sum up what he knew of China, could say only that it is "poor and dirty." Many children know more about U.S. movie stars than Chinese culture.

The discrepancy in wealth is a potential source of friction. There are more Rolls Royce cars per capita in Hong Kong than in London. Top-line Italian and French fashions are everywhere. Per capita income of the British colony is higher than in the United Kingdom itself.

Contrast this with China, where, aside from special enterprise zones and other booming zones, many peasants live at subsistence levels.

As the handover looms, many mainland Chinese have been moving to Hong Kong, while Hong Kongers have been paying more frequent visits to the mainland. Both are trying to mingle under Deng Xiaoping's formula of "one country, two systems," by which he guaranteed to maintain Hong's Kong's capitalist system and freedoms for 50 years.

Many of the mainland incomers have good degrees from top Chinese universities and speak fairly good English. Many head Chinese businesses or hold senior positions in Chinese state organizations. Many soon pick up the Hong Kong style of conspicuous consumption by gambling large sums at the colony's Happy Valley horseracing track or in the casinos of Portuguese Macao. Their obsession with Western brand names is legion (Many mainlanders like to display Western brand names on the outside of their clothes).

But, so far, the mainland community is sticking largely to itself.

Angelica Cheung says, in their free time, they seldom socialize with locals or Hong Kong's cosmopolitan expatriate community. Many recent mainland immigrants complain of discrimination by Hong Kong people, of feeling lonely, and lacking friends in the big city.

Hong Kongers, in turn, say that many mainlanders are only interested in shopping, and getting someone else to pick up the bill.

A happy marriage? Four months before China's five-star flag is hoisted over Hong Kong, the strains are already apparent, reinforcing those who take a pessimistic view of the future. British analyst Gerald Segal said: "There is no doubt that if the people of Hong Kong were given a free choice, they would not choose to be part of a country ruled by one of the world's most authoritarian governments."
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