Didi Kirsten Tatlow
Beijing. On a rain-soaked night 15 years ago, at home in his tiny apartment in Hong Kong, John Wong picked up the remote control and clicked off the sound on his television as the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” struck up in the first seconds of July 1, 1997. After 156 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong had become part of China again.
Wong, an architect’s assistant, was upset. China, he said, was a scary place — politically harsh, unjust and rather unhygienic. Hong Kong, by contrast, was a kinder place — ruled by law, less corrupt and more orderly in every way, despite the substantial economic pressures many of its people faced, he said.
The terms of Hong Kong’s return to Beijing’s control granted it 50 years of semi-autonomy, during which its civil liberties would be preserved. Fifteen years into this interim period, polls show that the unease Wong felt with the far-larger, Communist Party-ruled mainland persists among many Hong Kong residents.
But to hear mainland Chinese talk about Hong Kong, it appears that David might still have a moral upper hand over Goliath. The tiny enclave of Hong Kong exerts considerable soft power on the mainland, where many see it as an alternative vision of what China could be — where Chinese customs, assaulted by decades of Communist campaigns, have survived, but also where modern notions of individual rights and welfare are vigilantly defended.
“Of course the two economies are now very close, but still I feel as if Hong Kong is supporting China,” said Xiao Fei, 37, a Beijing native who lives and works in Hong Kong as a newspaper reporter.
“Hong Kong retains many Chinese traditions that are very important,” she said. “People help each other more in Hong Kong. There’s greater sincerity.”
“For example,” she said, “this morning a neighbor came to tell me there was a water leak in my flat. I let her in. I would never have done that in Beijing. In Hong Kong you don’t need to be so defensive.”
Socially, economically and politically, Hong Kong is a challenge to the Chinese government, said an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in a reflection of political tensions in China as a leadership transition begins here this autumn.
“Hong Kong is a window to a freer, capitalist world,” he said.
Yet as Hong Kong’s economy slows, he said, “Social problems are starting to emerge. During very rapid economic expansion, people tend to ignore social problems.”
Still, he said, “I don’t think there’s a very clear vision in the Chinese government of how to deal with the Hong Kong problem in the future.”
Where some see a problem, many mainlanders just see a place they’d like to live.
Mainland Chinese travel by the thousands every day to Hong Kong to buy books that are banned on the mainland and commodities like baby-milk powder and pharmaceuticals they hope are not tainted by sloppy and corrupt production practices as they are back home.
There, they find a much faster Internet unhobbled by censorship, and intangibles that deliver a higher quality of life: trust between people, civic responsibility, respect for rules.
Sha Anmei, 36, a clothing store owner who lives in Beijing, has been to Hong Kong twice and loved what she said was the fresher air (Hong Kong people complain about pollution, but everything is relative) and the better manners of its people. “I never thought I’d want to leave Beijing, but after having been to Hong Kong, I think it’s the city where I would like to live,” she said.
“It’s still very different from China; it’s more civilized,” she said. “I think it is because it was ruled by a Western country for such a long time.”
Zhang, a 44-year-old businesswoman who asked that she be identified by only her surname, first went to Hong Kong before 1997 as a Chinese government employee. Later she spent four years there working for a major Hong Kong company. Now she’s back in Beijing.
“It’s another China,” she said. “It makes us realize that the way things are here isn’t a question of people or culture or traditions, but of the system. China can be like Hong Kong, too.”
In Hong Kong, legal transparency makes life easier, she said.
“Doing business, you go online and read the rules, then you follow them,” she said. “Here, you have to call someone you know. That’s the way things are done. There’s no clear starting point like there is in Hong Kong.”
Xu Guangdi, 29, a manager at a Beijing company, has visited Hong Kong twice. “China is very feudal and conservative,” he said. “Hong Kong feels like a different world.”
“In Hong Kong there are many Falun Gong followers, and they can practice as they like,” he said, referring to a spiritual movement banned on the Chinese mainland as an “evil cult.”
For Wang Ning, 36, a businesswoman who was formerly married to a Hong Kong man and lives with her three Hong Kong-born children in Beijing, the children’s Hong Kong identity documents are a blessing: They can go to school anywhere in mainland China (while residency laws largely dictate where mainland-born children can attend school). Getting into a top Chinese university will be far easier too, with special admission rules for Hong Kong residents.
Around the world, China’s lack of soft power — exactly what mainlanders admire in Hong Kong — hurts, Ms. Wang said. Overseas, “they treat Hong Kong people as if they were worth more.”
“China is powerful now, but it’s all about economic figures,” she said. “China needs to change many things rather than just focus on economic development.”
New York Times