Simon Draper: Twenty years on from the Hong Kong handover

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after she swore an oath of office on ...
REUTERS

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after she swore an oath of office on the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule.

OPINION: Remember the "Y2K" computer bug panic of 1999?

The fear a coding problem in computer systems could create untold havoc as clocks ticked over into the new millennium?

The sense it could be the beginning of the end of the lives we had known?

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers his speech during the 20th anniversary of the city's handover.
BOBBY YIP

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers his speech during the 20th anniversary of the city's handover.

That's possibly the closest comparison point most New Zealanders would have to the uncertainty faced by Hong Kong residents back in the 1990s.

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July 1 1997 marked the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China – an act commonly known as "the Handover", or "the Return" in China.

Performers sail near the area where ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to ...
DAMIR SAGOLJ

Performers sail near the area where ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule.

Old China hands said Hong Kong had too much global economic might for China to mess with it.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents migrated to other countries in the lead-up to 1997, worried they would lose personal freedoms under Chinese rule.

Immigration from Hong Kong to New Zealand peaked in the mid-1990s.

China's and Hong Kong's flags are raised during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from ...
DAMIR SAGOLJ

China's and Hong Kong's flags are raised during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule.

This was despite the promise of "one country, two systems" – a framework designed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that stated no Chinese laws could be enforced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).

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All the talk of Hong Kong's imminent demise wasn't born out; indeed, some of those who left ultimately returned home.

There's little doubt China has changed more than Hong Kong has in the past 20 years. 1997 ushered in a new era for China as well.

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.
SUPPLIED

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.

But as the 20th anniversary of the handover is marked this month, the mood in Hong Kong remains mixed. Many residents harbour a deep scepticism about the region's future, and the inherent contradiction of "one country, two systems".

The 2014 "Umbrella Movement" protests happened after pro-democracy activists and students opposed an election framework passed by Beijing.

They viewed the framework as a denial of universal suffrage. China showed no signs of being swayed by these protests.

Earlier this year I visited Hong Kong as a guest of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, which is conscious of the need to actively promote the special administrative region.

I had visited several times before the 1997 handover. On this visit, I found Hong Kong as vibrant as it was then and there's no doubt it continues to be a key Asian hub.

But its environment has changed with the rise of various competitors such as Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Hong Kong was the world's busiest container port at various periods – most recently from 1999 to 2004 – but has been surpassed by Shanghai and others.

Officials I spoke to emphasised Hong Kong represented a unique proposition – "super-connectivity" with the enormous market that is China, combined with the certainty of a common law legal system, which has added integrity from outside jurists, including from New Zealand.

Hong Kong continues to be central to developments in the region.

A mega-bridge is being built between Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai.

This will improve connectivity to the Pearl River Delta, named by the World Bank in 2015 as the world's largest urban area in both size and population. Once completed, the 42km bridge will be one of the world's longest water crossings.

A high-speed rail service connecting Hong Kong with the Chinese cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Beijing is expected to be completed next year, becoming the world's longest high speed rail route.

Hong Kong sees itself as being the financial heart of China's planned Belt and Road Initiative.

In fact, the most recent New Zealand event I attended on that topic was organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council and the Hong Kong New Zealand Business Association, a demonstration of Hong Kong's enthusiasm to be central to the initiative.

Many New Zealanders have found Hong Kong a relatively easy entry point into North Asia, and we can expect that to continue through the often-overlooked working holiday scheme, which enables 400 young Kiwis to work there annually.

The "one country, two systems" framework is due to come to an end in 2047.

In looking ahead 30 years to that date, officials I met on my visit suggested Hong Kong's Basic Law (a mini-constitution that grants protection of rights and freedoms) would continue in some form or another.

They argued that was not only in Hong Kong's interests but also in China's – because the special administrative region could continue to be used as a testing ground for ideas and changes it might ultimately want to bring into the mainland.

The Y2K scare turned out to be great for consultants, but passed without too much disturbance for ordinary people. Hong Kongers will be hoping that 2047 passes in a similar way – profitable for consultants but with little real impact on ordinary people.

Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation focussed on New Zealand-Asia relations, with a range of programmes designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia and to forge links to the region.

 - Stuff

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