Several months after the handover in 1997, a friend of mine who had retired some years earlier to Australia, and his wife, returned to Hong Kong for a holiday. He had worked here for several decades, she was a local girl born and bred, so both had been very familiar with the city in the past and still had many friends in the SAR. But it quickly became clear that their understanding of life in post-handover Hong Kong was seriously deficient.
As I drove them up Garden Road I saw in the rear view mirror that the lady was staring intently out of the car windows, rapidly swivelling her head from side to side to check the situation in all directions. I naturally asked if everything was all right.
She said she was looking for the PLA soldiers which everyone knew were stationed on every street corner. When they were well settled on my sofa with a soothing cup of tea in hand, I explained as gently as I could that I had yet to see a single PLA soldier on duty in the streets of Hong Kong. I had seen some on television at a ceremony, and from time to time you could see garrison vehicles driving around town. They stood out partly because of their distinctive number plates, but mostly because they respected speed limits and used their indicators when changing lanes, a practice most local drivers honoured in the breach.
In response to further queries, I explained that government critics continued to walk the streets freely, and their antics were fully covered in the local media which remained free. Law enforcement was exclusively the preserve of Hong Kong’s own policemen.
I say these things not to mock my old friends, but as a reminder that there were concerns in the run-up to 1997 that China’s resumption of administration over Hong Kong would be quickly followed by some significant changes in the local way of life. These concerns had been quite widespread and indeed had caused some people to uproot themselves and emigrate. Yet none of the fears had materialised.
I have deliberately started this column with a tale at the personal, micro, level because I think that will resonate more with the individual reader. I will turn to the macro level in a moment, but we should not forget that avoidance of many potential negatives is also to the credit of the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” formula.
Turning to the big picture, it is easy now to overlook just how difficult resolving the Hong Kong issue looked for a long time during the period 1982 – 84 when discussions between the UK and China were ongoing. One was a former world super power now in decline, the other a long ago super power beginning the long climb to restore its former status. The UK had gone to war with Argentina over the Falklands, and from time to time engaged in bitter diplomatic exchanges with Spain over Gibraltar. Yet neither of those situations carried the historical baggage of two opium wars. It would have been so easy for the talks over Hong Kong’s future to go badly wrong.
But in the end both governments were pragmatic: the Chinese side demonstrated flexibility while adhering to principle and the British accepted reality. Thus a major problem left over from history was resolved without bloodshed, and these two important countries went their own way.
In the 20 years since the handover, some Hong Kong people have emigrated, as they remain free to do, but many others who had left before 1997 have returned to enjoy the fruits of our city’s continuing success.
Turning to look forwards, Hong Kong’s future under Chinese sovereignty is bright. Our country is an economic superpower and our city is an established international financial centre. The increasing internationalisation of the renminbei and the launch of the Belt and Road initiative will provide many opportunities for Hong Kong’s financial services and professional services sectors. Our status and the opportunities provided would not have been possible if our constitutional situation had not been resolved. Financial markets, in particular, abhor uncertainty and Hong Kong’s position – our stock market has been the world’s number one capital raising centre several times in recent years -- speaks for itself.
This is not to say that everything in the garden is rosy. From time to time friction does arise in relations between the motherland and the SAR. But with a pragmatic approach and good will on both sides, such problems can and should be resolved.