An Ithaca graduate in Hong Kong takes a look at the upcoming takeover.
By Scott Murphy '85
While interviewing actor Denzel Washington last summer in Washington, D.C., about his recent film Courage under Fire, I casually asked him if he was going to visit Hong Kong soon. Quickly, he smiled and said, "Is there going to be a Hong Kong?"
The obvious answer to that is "yes." But I could understand his response. And if, like so many others, he had asked me, "Whatís going to happen in 1997?" or "Whatís going to happen when the Chinese take over?" my response would have been along the lines of "I donít know." Nobody does.
The 1997 "issue," as itís called here, is something that Iíve faced or been confronted with ever since I arrived in Hong Kong more than six years ago. It hangs in the air like a rain cloud ready to burst. For at midnight on June 30, Hong Kong will be handed back to China, after more than 155 years of British rule. Over 4,000 journalists from around the world are expected to attend this historic event. Many are already here, trying to get some kind of hold on the complex and ever-changing issue.
In fact, "complex" could be an understatement when referring to the handover. China, which boasts over one billion inhabitants, is a Communist superpower. Capitalistic Hong Kong, with a population of only six million, is wealthier than many countries. When China takes over, the government is proposing a "one country, two system" rule, something that has never been tried before, much less succeeded.
"This is an unusual experiment and there are bound to be hiccups along the way. But people have to have a certain amount of perspective," says Andrew Hamer, the director of the Center of Real Estate and Construction at Hong Kong University. Hamer, who spent 8 of his 17 years as a World Bank economist focusing on China, believes that Western viewpoints focus on the handoverís negative aspects because of Chinaís Communist stance and recent heavy-handed tactics. However, here in Hong Kong, Hamer believes that what China does to the business sector is of most concern: "I think around here the concern is erosion that hits the economy. We could in fact be living in a politically tame environment but still flourish as an economic entity."
"Flourish" and "economy" are certainly two important words for the people of Hong Kong. In case you are unfamiliar with the place where "wonders never cease" (according to the tourist board), Hong Kong is synonymous with two things: work and money. When one considers the cityís economic contrasts, that pairing becomes clear. Hong Kong boasts the highest number of Rolls Royces per capita in the world, yet it also contains the worldís most densely populated district. Apartments are small but are among the worldís most expensive to rent.
What it all translates into is a daily pace thatís lightning fast. The entrepreneurial spirit runs high because Hong Kong is one of the few places where your ideas and your convictions can get you a new business within a week. Or a new job, or a new life. For example, in late 1990, I was hired by Princeton University to teach English at a college in Hong Kong for a year. Cut to 1997 and Iím a senior producer at STAR-TV, a growing satellite television company that is currently beamed to 250 million viewers in 53 countries.
Unfortunately, as a TV journalist, Iíve seen signs that the future might not bear such good fortune. While doing a report on the "1997 issue" for MTV News, I interviewed Hong Kong democracy leader Martin Lee about what might happen. His response was pessimistic: "The biggest worry is that China might rule Hong Kong with an iron fist." Specifically, that "iron fist" could include press crackdowns, human rights injustices, and a blatant disregard of the very idea of democracy.
Some signs are there already. When July 1 comes, the torch will be passed from Chris Patten, Hong Kongís last colonial leader, to Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kongís first chief executive. Tung, a former shipping magnate, didnít achieve his post by popular vote. Instead, a small legislative council voted for him with a few nudges from the Chinese government. While Tungís appointment has been accepted by Hong Kong citizens, protests were staged when China subsequently handpicked the 60-strong provisional legislature heíll work with. Patten went so far as to call the move "a bizarre farce." "Basically, one has to ask a couple questions," says Hamer. "You wonder if the Chinese understand the difference between their system and the Hong Kong system. The second question is, do they care? . . . In China there is no press freedom."
Indeed, press crackdowns that have occurred over the past year in China include the temporary banning of 100 Web sites of Western media such as USA Today and the New York Times. Last year a Hong Kong journalist was jailed in effect for "spying" when he was actually reporting on the Chinese stock market for a Hong Kong newspaper. And foreign diplomats and reporters were banned from attending the four-hour trial of former student leader Wang Dan, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "plotting to overthrow the government." While few think China will impose such measures in Hong Kong, self-censorship is a hot topic among Hong Kong journalists.
In fact, last year I experienced just such a case while producing a documentary on the rock group the Beastie Boys. Adam Yauch, a member of the trio, explained to me that he was going to organize a concert in San Francisco to create awareness for the people of Tibet. He went on in detail about his belief that Tibetans were being oppressed and abused at the hands of the Chinese government. These were provocative statements that I believed would make for an above-average music documentary.
But STAR-TVís Department of Standards and Practices thought otherwise. Usually, they might request that seconds of a video clip or film not be aired due to foul language, excessive language, or sexual scenes. In this case they told me that eight minutes couldnít air. The reason? Rupert Murdoch, the owner of STAR-TV, had just been granted permission to start broadcasting a new Chinese-based channel.
While my experience was a startling wake-up call, this may just become a reality press outlets will have to get used to in order to survive. In fact, Hamer believes that Chinese officials could say they donít have any bearing on self-censorship. "Can you have a viable economy when this type of criticism is not allowed? I think so --- thatís what Singapore is. The Chinese are extremely envious of Singapore: that model doesnít allow you to go after senior officials in the government. Using Singapore as a model, I suspect that major international publications that want to be sold there obviously practice some degree of self-censorship over the prime minister."
However, looming over any crackdown is the specter of Tiananmen Square. In China and in Hong Kong, that 1989 event is commonly referred to as "the incident." While emigration levels from Hong Kong have dropped to their lowest levels since then, Chinaís military might and attitudes canít be swept under the table. Recent documentaries like Carman Hintonís Gates of Heavenly Peace have helped to paint a more balanced picture of the events leading up to the crackdown, but the fact is people died because they wanted a democratic government.
I donít believe anything like that will occur in Hong Kong. Neither do many other current citizens of Hong Kong. But itís hard to predict the bottom line. After all, in the two months between drafts of this article, Chinaís leader died, laws were scrapped from Hong Kongís books, and an Internet cafe was opened in the increasingly capitalistic city of Shanghai!
To top it off, businesses, many of them American, are perceiving Hong Kong to be the gateway to China in the 21st century. For example, NBC, CNN, HBO, ESPN, TNT, and MGM are among the many broadcasting companies that have either started or beefed up their presence this decade. Among the 1,800 multinational companies in Hong Kong, 700 called it their regional headquarters. Over 30,000 Americans make Hong Kong the largest expatriate community in the city. As if thatís not all, in the next 10 years over 50 billion U.S. dollars will be invested in such projects as a controversial new airport and a new train link with the mainland.
So, as it stands, the Hong Kong - China issue is certainly one full of contradictions. For now, only one thing seems sure: that the rules will continue to change. While many, myself included, think that China will be extraordinarily cautious in the face of worldwide scrutiny, that may just be hope winking at us. Andrew Hamer said to me during our interview that he was "moderately optimistic" about the future of Hong Kong, "at least for the first three to five years."
Iíd have to say I agree, in part. Iím "optimistic" that Iíll be keeping track of my favorite city --- from some other part of the world.
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