by Dick Virden
Watching the unfolding drama in the streets of Hong Kong, as police and protestors clash daily over the city-state’s future, brings back vivid memories of another, distant era when, for visitors like me, the then-Crown Colony was a tantalizing, intoxicating, mixture of East and West.
It was more than half a century ago, in January of 1967, when I first stopped in Hong Kong en route to Bangkok for my initial assignment in the Foreign Service. I’d never ventured outside the United States before and was bowled over by the sights, sounds, and smells of this teeming island group off the tip of mainland China.
The British still ruled Hong Kong then, as they would for another three decades; their influence was not only in the language – nearly everyone I encountered seemed to speak the Queen’s English—but also in a free press, august banks, a thriving economy, respected courts, and efficient administration.
Most of the residents (about four million then, more than seven million today), were ethnic Chinese. They brought the untold richness of China’s ancient civilization. Take cuisine, for example. Having dinner at a famed Chinese restaurant with a Foreign Service classmate and other friends, we were each invited to select a dish for the group to share. When I came up with nothing more imaginative than sweet and sour pork – the one Chinese café in my home town had a simple menu — others quickly provided the guidance I clearly needed. (I did better on future visits.)
Hong Kong in that era was also one of world’s best shopping emporiums, offering great bargains in everything from tvs, radios and cameras to tailor-made suits, shirts and shoes. The saying was that you could go broke saving money in Hong Kong. For the American and British sailors whose ships made frequent port calls, there were convenient Navy post offices to ship it all home.
The banks were among the most prestigious in the world. In 1968, my future wife Linda, then a college student, went to one of them to transfer money from her hometown bank in Foley, Minnesota. The Chinese tellers conferred in a backroom, returning to say, “State Bank of Foley very small bank.” Still, the transaction went through.
From the commanding heights of the Victoria Peak area, where most of the British establishment lived, the view of the city and its storied harbor was breathtaking. (Our son Andrew, an expert on desserts, gave high marks to the many-layered “Hilton Tower” ice cream sundae served at a grand hotel in the Peak neighborhood).
For Westerners at least, life was good. A novel about a British judge who made his home in the colony was titled, “Old FILTH,” with the acronym standing for, “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Many did; some thrived.
Dropping by a half dozen times from the late 60s to the early 80s from my posts in Thailand and Vietnam, I saw Hong Kong as an ideal place to visit. It was exotic, yet also prosperous and safe. No doubt it felt quite different to the Chinese residents, who shared in few of the riches and answered to an imperial power half a world away.
London relinquished control to China in 1997, fulfilling 19th century treaty obligations, but it did less well in providing its former charges the democratic legacy they dearly sought.
Economically, Hong Kong has continued to prosper in the two decades since the British turnover; local per capita income is now better than four times the average for the rest of China, though income distribution remains even more skewed than our own. Even more than redressing this disparity or other more specific grievances, what clearly motivates the protestors manning the barricades is their desire for political freedom — democracy.
Hong Kongers had a whiff of it under the British, and now they want the real thing. They’d like to make their own choices, to govern themselves. They see repressive measures by Beijing as a giant step backward, toward authoritarian government and restricted rights, away from self-rule and democratic rights.
While that may be how it looks to passengers on the Star Ferry plying the waters around Hong Kong, authorities a thousand miles away in Beijing see a rebellious region that needs to be brought to heel lest the contagion spread to other parts of the country. Their instinct is to suppress the protests, but they are also wary of stifling the region’s booming economy (Hong Kong remains one of the world’s premier banking and trading centers, a vital source of revenue for China’s central government and its business tycoons.)
It’s not at all clear whether or how these clashing perspectives can be reconciled. In trying to have both economic openness and rigid political control – Leninist capitalism, as one observer puts it — China is riding a tiger; its hopes for a leading and respected role on the world stage may well depend on finding a satisfactory solution to the contradictions in the “one country, two systems” riddle agreed to when Britain returned Hong Kong to China. Can this circle be squared?
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer; his assignments during a 38-year diplomatic career included two tours in Thailand and one in Vietnam. An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.