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An End to Humiliation

June 29, 1997|Maurice Meisner | Maurice Meisner is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His most recent book is "The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism" (Hill & Wang)

MADISON, WIS. — The impending return of Hong Kong to China--after 150 years of British colonial rule--is mourned by most Western commentators as a defeat for democracy and autonomy. But in China, the coming transition is celebrated as a long overdue act of historical justice, generating an outpouring of patriotic fervor not seen since the defeat of Japan more than a half-century ago. A huge clock in downtown Beijing has been counting the days and hours to July 1, when the British Crown Colony reverts to Chinese sovereignty; citizens crowd the site for group photos. Across the land for many months now, schoolchildren have started the day by shouting in unison the dwindling number of days remaining until Hong Kong's return to China. Television, newspapers and magazines are saturated with retellings of the shameful story of the loss of Hong Kong in 1842 and the glorious story of how Deng Xiaoping reclaimed it from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The nationalist celebration has spread to Hong Kong itself. Wealthy Hong Kong Chinese business- men clamor to join a multitude of old and new "patriotic societies" to demonstrate their love for the "motherland." For the Chinese, who make up 97% of Hong Kong's population, the "motherland" is, of course, China, not Britain. And, as a general rule, the wealthier the businessperson, the more ardent the expression of patriotism.

On the Hong Kong stock exchange, the most coveted issues are "red chips," the offerings of mainland Chinese companies. The value of stocks, as a whole, has increased twelvefold since 1984, the year Thatcher reluctantly agreed to return Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, on the basis of Deng's formula of "one country, two systems," an agreement that once generated dire predictions of Hong Kong's economic collapse. Recent polls suggest that public confidence in Hong Kong's future is near an all-time high, with much of the colony's population of 6 million caught up in the frenzy of nationalistic pride.

The current situation is much as Deng envisioned it in 1984. He then championed Chinese patriotism, regardless of other political beliefs or social goals, as the sole qualification for leadership in the future governance of Hong Kong. Patriotism, in turn, was defined as "respect for the Chinese nation" and "sincere support for the motherland's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong." Otherwise, Deng concluded, it made little difference whether one believed in "capitalism or feudalism or even slavery." It would seem there are many such politically flexible "patriots" today, in Hong Kong as well as in the People's Republic.

In striking contrast to the Chinese view that the end of British rule in Hong Kong marks the triumph of historical justice, the British portray it as a case of a gigantic dictatorship swallowing a small and democratizing city-state. This is the portrait the Western media have tended to reproduce. But it is not a portrait that can survive serious historical scrutiny.

The history of British rule in Hong Kong began under the most dubious of moral circumstances. The island was a part (at the time considered a small part) of the booty gained by Britain as a result of the Opium War of 1839-42. This was a war fought against the old Chinese empire to protect English traders who smuggled opium into China, especially to guarantee the profits of their primary supplier, the British East India Company. The cession of Hong Kong was a provision of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the first of the "unequal treaties" that opened China to the economic and political ambitions of the Western powers (and later Japan). The Opium War thus marked the beginning of what the Chinese call their "century of humiliation."

The spectacle of a war fought on behalf of dope smugglers did not go without protest in 19th-century Britain, either. William Gladstone, several times prime minister during the latter half of the 19th century, was among the critics:

"A war more unjust in origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of. The British flag is hoisted to protect an infamous traffic."

Yet, it was as a result of such a war that Britain acquired the first part of the crown colony. Two other parts were added under similar circumstances: The Kowloon Peninsula, on the mainland across from Hong Kong Island, was acquired after the British victory in the Second Opium War of 1856-60; and the rural New Territories were added in 1898, by a 99-year lease wrested from the decaying imperial regime at a time when a helpless China stood on the verge of partition by foreign powers.

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