John Derbyshire has a neat post at The Corner describing the Hong Kong of his younger days that sounds a lot more human than the caricatures that can arise from a more academic view of the place. I wrote this quick response:
I’m having the interesting experience of reading your post, and writing this one, while actually in Hong Kong. I lived out here in the 1990s, and your portrait seems a lot more true to life to me than the idea of some mythical city-state of yeoman entrepreneurs fiercely guarding their personal economic independence.
Fifteen years ago, when I was here, things seemed to have become a lot more civilized than they were 40 years ago, mostly, I presume, because Hong Kong had gotten so much wealthier. Part of Hong Kong’s continued evolution of a welfare state since then has presumably been driven by further increases in wealth (as I look around right now, it’s irrefutably wealthier and more Chinese / less “colonial” than it was in the prior decade). Economic security provided by the state appears to be a luxury good that the vast majority of societies want as they become wealthier.
The biggest change over time, however, has obviously been the partial absorption of Hong Kong by PRC China after the handover in 1997. But I think this has shaped Hong Kong’s self-image in ways that are not necessarily obvious from a distance.
First, Hong Kong has lost its special role as entrepot for China. Hong Kong and Shanghai are not huge commercial cities by accident. They sit on the two natural harbors with the best access to China’s massive population belts. The fear in Hong Kong since the handover has been that Hong Kong will become a backwater, and once again have to play second fiddle to Shanghai. This creates huge pressure on Hong Kong to get along with the national government and not be seen as a trouble-maker.
Even deeper is the change in Hong Kong’s self-image. A lot of the spirit of the city in earlier decades was driven by a contrast with PRC China that is no longer nearly so severe. The “to-get-rich-is-glorious” China of 2009 is an authoritarian country, but it is nothing like the totalitarian nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. Hong Kong for a long period was defined by the frisson of dancing on the edge of a volcano, much as I suspect West Berlin was during the Cold War. It was a tiny island of freedom on the edge of a vast empire populated by people who were otherwise identical to those trapped on the other side of a border.
In the early 1990s I had negotiated a transaction with a fabulously wealthy Hong Kong property entrepreneur. After the deal was closed, we were out on his yacht in the harbor, and he began to grow a little wistful – which, in my limited experience, is a pretty rare state of mind for a Chinese magnate. He told me the story of coming to Hong Kong as a child. His family was travelling illegally by foot through southern China in the attempt to get to Hong Kong and freedom. They had to travel at night to avoid arrest. That part of China in those days was mostly dark at night, because so little of it was electrified. So they navigated by looking for the glow on the horizon and walking toward it, knowing that it had to be Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was once a light in the darkness. Increasingly, it’s just another city in a rapidly-developing China.