1990s >> 1997 >> no-1111-march-1997

Handing back the booty

On 1 July Hong Kong will revert to being part of China, bringing to an end a century-and-a-half of colonial rule. Hong Kong island was originally ceded to Britain in 1842, part of the prize for victory in what even capitalist historians call the Opium War. Though supposedly British in perpetuity, Hong Kong island is not viable without the surrounding territories, which, after yet another war, were granted to Britain on a 99-year lease in 1898. On an agreement reached by Margaret Thatcher, the whole of the Hong Kong territory will be returned to China.

Hong Kong has operated as a very profitable colony, with rich pickings for British companies and their local subsidiaries. Politically, it has been run by an appointed governor, aided by advisory councils, and with no pretence even at what passes for democracy under capitalism. Most forms of protest were illegal, including the use of loud-hailers in public. Things began to change as the implications of Thatcher’s negotiations with the government of China sank in. Then in 1992, John Major appointed old chum and recently-defeated Tory MP Chris Patten as the new Hong Kong governor. Patten belatedly introduced limited elections and repealed much of the earlier repressive legislation, but this was clearly window-dressing, done with a view to flaunting Hong Kong’s “democracy” in contrast to the dictatorial regime in China.

China has for years done very well out of Hong Kong as an export market and a source of foreign exchange, and certainly has no interest in seeing the place degenerate into chaos. After 1 July, Hong Kong will be a Special Administrative Region of China, under the slogan of “one country, two systems”. The political boss will be the Chief Executive, elected by a hand-picked selection committee in a show of openness that fooled nobody. In December the new man was named as Tung Chee-hwa, millionaire owner of a shipping company and just the kind of person China’s rulers like to do business with. In fact in 1985 they actually bailed out his company to the tune of £75 million! Tung is clearly going to toe Beijing’s line: already he has given warning that the press will have to be more “responsible”, meaning they should not inquire at all closely into the doings of the government. And many of the former colonial laws are being revived, much to the wrath of Patten and the British political establishment.

But what hypocrisy it all is! China criticises Britain for repressive policies, and then re-introduces some of the most repressive, which is particularly chilling from the government responsible for the 1989 Tiananmen massacres. Britain objects to China re-introducing the laws that British governors were originally responsible for and still implemented up until recently. But it’s really all a sideshow, with the aim of British-owned companies continuing with their investments in Hong Kong (and, of course, in the rest of China), and of the Chinese government profiting from its new possession.

The ordinary people of Hong Kong were treated with contempt (at best) by successive colonial governors, and will receive similar treatment from Tung and his capitalist colleagues. The pollution in Hong Kong, the enormous squatter population, the sweatshops and firetrap factories, will all continue. As one ruling class hands over to another, capitalism with its exploitation and its disfigurement of human lives and the environment remains in place.

Paul Bennett