Hong Kong’s history is complex but protesters will fight for its future
As a kid growing up in Hong Kong, the headline that most captured my attention was the one about a man from China who swam across a bay to reach freedom in Hong Kong and had his leg bitten off by a shark.
To cap it off, he didn’t notice until he sensed the water around him getting warm and becoming red.
In those days, the 1970s, China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution. It was a big, poor country to our north that could have been at the opposite end of the Earth and yet it was just a shark-infested bay away.
How times have changed.
Hong Kong and me
I was born in Hong Kong. My Mum is half Chinese. She was a journalist and my Dad was editor of the English-language newspaper, The South China Morning Post.
I had always defined my Hong Kong childhood by the newspaper headlines that slipped under our door. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I, too, became obsessed with news.
In the 1980s I reported on the negotiations underpinning the return of British Hong Kong to China. And later, as the ABC’s China correspondent, I covered the 1997 handover.
As someone who had a professional, as well as an emotional, investment in the story of Hong Kong, I felt it was my duty to do so.
My connection to Hong Kong is long, and complex
As I watch demonstrations take over the streets I knew as a child, my feelings today are complex.
But the other part of the equation was that we lived in a large apartment in a building and our neighbours were mostly foreigners.
The newspaper gave our family a generous amount of leave each year. Despite the fact I felt like a local, we were colonials with the right to call Britain, and later Australia, home.
I recently asked my father whether he’d expected to live the rest of his life in Hong Kong and he replied that he had not. He always knew it would be temporary.
“Because it wasn’t ours,” he replied in response to my question.
My dad moved to Hong Kong in the 1950s. He met and married a Eurasian reporter: my mum.
In the late 1960s, Australia’s veteran Asia correspondent Dick Hughes wrote a book titled Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time.
The book describes the uniqueness of Hong Kong: a Western colony on Chinese soil; a microcosm of the confrontation between East and West.
For 150 years, Hong Kong was run by British civil servants and then British-trained civil servants. It was a place where the rule of law was applied and admired.
From a lowly Chinese fishing village in the early 1800s, a “barren rock” as it was once described, Hong Kong became an economic miracle, while China remained mired in poverty.
It is no surprise that some Chinese citizens were willing to risk dying in shark-infested waters to escape to a new life in Hong Kong.
Murky claims for control of Hong Kong
The truth of the matter is that Hong Kong was “won” by Britain in the murkiest of circumstances after the Opium Wars.
Under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which China has always described as an “unequal treaty”, the Qing government ceded Hong Kong island to Queen Victoria, as a “crown colony in perpetuity”. Or in other words, forever.
In 1860, the agreement was extended to include the Kowloon Peninsula, which is across the harbour from Hong Kong.
Finally, in 1898, the colony was further expanded with a 99-year lease on the New Territories. These three parts make up Hong Kong today.
The thorny question of Hong Kong’s return to China began to look much more real after the British Governor of the territory, Sir Murray MacLehose, visited Beijing in 1979.
The Scotsman, who was an avid reformer, was attempting to soothe investors’ concerns about Hong Kong’s reversion, but he also revealed that China intended to regain sovereignty.
Three years later, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher began the negotiation process with chairman Deng Xiaoping.
As a young journalist, I felt it was morally correct that Hong Kong should be returned to China. Any reading of the Opium Wars strengthens the sense that the acquisition was unfair.
But a moral take is one thing.
The reality was that the object of acquisition had fundamentally changed from a backwater to something spectacularly successful. And Hong Kong people were more than capable of running their own show.
I sat in stormy press conferences as Ms Thatcher defended her decision not to allow Hong Kong people full British citizenship.
Those gutsy journalists who argued with her are still my heroines.
In the end, the best the British could do was to negotiate an agreement which promised that under China, Hong Kong people would have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years.
As Mainland China reformed in the 1980s, pessimism began to turn to cautious optimism.
This optimism mounted until June 1989 when the Tiananmen Square crackdown occurred as the recent Four Corners program so ably testified.
Hong Kong people were reminded about Mao’s saying: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Today, protesters are on the street because their China-approved Chief Executive Carrie Lam wanted to pass an extradition law which means that a Hong Kong resident could be handed over to face a Chinese court.
Several movies have been made about the audacious crime boss including Chasing the Dragon II: the Wild Wild Bunch, which is currently screening in Hong Kong cinemas.
The case was deeply controversial, given that the bulk of Big Spender’s crimes took place in the British colony. It resulted in an early crisis of faith in Hong Kong’s judicial independence post the handover.
Since then, there have been other questionable legal decisions made by Chinese courts, often involving some of our citizens.
Deciding the future
Watching the protests in Hong Kong reminds me of the resilience and tenacity of Hong Kong people I saw when I was growing up. They are not pawns.
But what will happen when Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy from China officially expires in 2047? Thirty years from now seems like a long time, but it isn’t.
Hong Kong people argue that they deserve to have a say in determining their future, not just pro-Beijing officials.
As a kid, watching my dad’s newspaper slide under the front door every day, I read the headlines and thought that Hong Kong was a strange and exciting place.
And it had to be special if someone was willing to risk losing an arm or a leg just so they could call Hong Kong home.
Jane Hutcheon presents One Plus One on ABC News.