Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 after more than 150 years. It had been under British rule since 1842 after the Chinese lost the first Opium War (1839-42) through the treaty of Nanjing.
The second Opium War (1856–60) was fought by Britain and France against China. It led to the ceding of Kowloon peninsula to the UK. The New Territories were added in 1898 on a 99-year lease. The Opium War was just about that – Britons made lots of money importing opium to China from India and elsewhere. This angered China because of increased addiction and social disruption.
In the 1997 handover ceremony, Chris Patten, the last and 28th governor of Hong Kong, accompanied by his family, gave a farewell speech while seemingly choking with emotions. He drove around his official mansion three times and then boarded a yatch. After more than 150 years, Hong Kong was now under Chinese rule.
That was much less than the 68 years Britons ruled us. Where is the farewell speech by Kenya’s last governor, Malcom MacDonald?
Chinese children sang and danced, finally writing the word Hong Kong on the arena. The handover was symbolic; it marked the slipping away of the last strategic British overseas possession long after the wind of change had set the colonies free. Hong Kong seems to have replaced India as the jewel on the crown of the British empire.
Under British rule, Hong Kong prospered, becoming a global financial centre. To buttress its strategic significance, China agreed to let her keep her political and economic system for 50 years, so so-called ‘one country two systems’. It became a special administrative region (SAR). Its gross domestic product per capita was about $61,500 (Sh6.15 million) in 2017 against Kenya’s $3,500 (Sh350,000) for the same year.
Today, we know Hong Kong more for protests than her service-based economy and a vibrant stock exchange, set up in 1891 and which recently tried to buy the London Stock Exchange.
The origin of the protests is China’s attempt to change the law, so that Hong Kong citizens can be extradited to the mainland China to face criminal charges. The residents saw that as an attempt to dilute the basic law and took to the streets. Curiously, even after the bill was withdrawn, the protests still went on.
The faceless, mostly young protesters, are determined. Their cause seems to preserve democratic space, but it could be more than that. Could they be feeling the effects of inequality and economic stagnation? Youth are disproportionately affected by the economic cycles, including unemployment in most countries, not just in Hong Kong.
The protests have fuelled conspiracy theories. One is that outside forces are trying to use Hong Kong as a gateway to democratise China. The trade dispute with America does not make matters any better.
After months of protests, one could ask: what is the end game?
Chinese authorities could just watch and ensure the protests don’t get out of hand and hope they will fizzle out and don’t spread to the mainland. This will however slow down the economy and agitate the protesters more. The slowdown could also make protesters see “sense”.
But there is a risk of capital flight held in the financial system too. Remember Hong Kong has one of the highest concentrations of high net-worth individuals in the world.
One big question is whether Hong Kong should think more like mainland China, where economic progress drowns democracy, or whether mainland China should think more like Hong Kong, where democracy came before economic prosperity. Will mainland China eventually look more like Hong Kong or the other way round?
What is not disputable is that China has the upper hand in this dispute. Could they bring 2047 forward, when the SAR status will end? Could she threaten an early end of the two system, one country arrangement?
Prof Ken Kamoche, currently at University of Nottingham in UK and formerly at City University of Hong Kong, had this to say about the Hong Kong protests: “These protests are not exactly a surprise to anyone who has observed the culture of dissent simmer in Hong Kong over the last 15 years, as Beijing makes its presence increasingly felt in the territory.
“The youth are frustrated by lack of opportunities, extremely high cost of living and a threat to their civil liberties. Their government and local property tycoons are closely tied to Beijing, but the youth see their future in a shrinking Hong Kong.”
Any Sinologist will notice that the Chinese work with long cycles. It took 29 years from the founding of modern China in 1949 to open up the country in 1978. It took another 23 years for China to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
How long will it take China to hold free and fair elections? That will only take place if there is a critical mass of adherents to Western democracy as we perceive it. That mass is not easy to attain in a country so proud of her history and new geopolitical position. Any visitor to China soon realises it is a different country from what the Western media tells us.
For a shift to universal suffrage, the current and future Chinese leadership must be sure democratisation will not tear the country apart. It tore the former Soviet Union apart which, however, did not have the economic robustness of China today.
Let us give credit where it’s due; holding a country of 1.4 billion together is not easy. Are we not struggling to hold a country of 50 million together? How did China manage the end of the Cold War so successfully compared to, say, Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, which all broke into smaller countries?
What level of economic growth will eventually open China a second time, now to democracy? Her neighbours such as South Korea eventually opened to democracy after sustained economic growth. Will China be different?
The protesters might be testing the Chinese system and pushing it to the limit. My hunch is that they will wait for some time. The protests could be a free experiment for us. What should come earlier, democracy or economic progress? By the year 2047 or earlier, we could get an answer.
Finally, will there be another elaborate ceremony to mark the end of the one country, two systems arrangement? How will the one country look like after 2047? More like current Hong Hong or mainland China? We can only wait and watch from the periphery.
– The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi
Do not miss out on the latest news. Join the Standard Digital Telegram channel HERE.