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Hong Kong Handover
July 5, 2007

The End of the Hong Kong Anomaly
Let us imagine how leading world news agencies will cover the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China, in ten years' time. We are sure to see the same things we have observed now in early July. Headlines and opening paragraphs will again speak about the demands of Hong Kong opposition marches. Momentum is a great thing.

Meanwhile the opposition, which has quite a number of other demands to make, is focusing on the direct election of the head of government and legislators in Hong Kong, which has been a special administrative region of China for ten years now. It is not out of the question that in ten years' time such elections will be held, or the territory will be moving closer to them. And then it will be possible to speak about important steps toward finally dismantling the inherited British colonial system in this part of the world.

The process of saying good-bye to the British Empire - meaning the European way of thinking, not the empire itself - has been going on for decades. For the 156 years during which Hong Kong was under the British crown, it had no voting democracy, and its governor was appointed by London. The empire, until its key parts dropped off after the Second World War, was not only not a democracy, but remained a racist kingdom. It is enough to recall an early episode from the political biography of one of the empire's gravediggers - the great Mahatma Gandhi. At the end of the 19th century in South Africa, a ticket collector threw him off a train because Gandhi was traveling on a first-class ticket, which was forbidden for "coloreds." Incidentally, South Africa, many times condemned in the second half of the 20th century for its racist regime of apartheid, was merely trying to preserve the old order for another half-century after separating from the empire.

But even today, as we see, the British are fond of their empire. They make it appear in their media reports that Hong Kong is an example of all good things and a model of democracy for China and all others.

The point is that the 12-year-old process of returning to China the lands on which the British built Hong Kong has coincided with a surge in globalisation, or an ideology that paints the Western world and the Western system of values as the natural leader of the process of creating a world community that has been going on for several centuries now. Britain, which never held elections for the head of government in Hong Kong, has become a teacher of democracy, and China its potential pupil. And it is still unable to give up this role. The 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return is, however, worthy of a more interesting discussion than the one usually confined to the "democracy vs. non-democracy" comparison. Over these ten years we have witnessed the disappearance of "the Hong Kong anomaly" and a modification of the role played by this unusual territory off China's southern shores.

Jubilant reports carried in the Chinese press made a fleeting mention of one sensational figure: whereas in 1997, during British rule, Hong Kong's foreign trade amounted to 1.1 trillion Hong Kong dollars, in 2006 it reached 2.3 trillion.

Yet Hong Kong's survival as a world financial and commercial center seemed to be hanging in the balance when it was about to come under Chinese jurisdiction.

The truth is that for a century and a half, Hong Kong, with its status of a free port and its British legal system (still in place), flourished because it was an abnormally healthy part of a sick organism - China, which first was an ageing empire, then - between the two world wars - a country of chaos, and later the embodiment of the eastern and less successful version of Communism. But by the time of Hong Kong's return to the country and after it, China itself has been increasingly shaping its system after Hong Kong's pattern. And that meant that sooner or later, after losing its unique place, Hong Kong could expect, if not to wither away, then at least to get lost among other Hong Kongs.

Today we see that this is only partly happening. The country still has two legal systems, one in Hong Kong and one in the rest of China. But China is increasingly adopting Hong Kong's ways. It is a fact that Hong Kong's traditional rival from before the Second World War - Shanghai - has recovered and is looking up. A further dozen such rivals are challenging its former monopoly as the "economic gateway to China," including the huge city of Guangzhou, which is practically right next to Hong Kong. Both are gradually becoming part of one tremendous economic area in the delta of the Pearl River. But the continuing mighty growth of the Chinese economy is giving all Hong Kongs their share of prosperity. And whereas earlier this territory profited from its identity as separate from China, now it gains from being part of China and participating in its rapid development.

As regards democracy, Hong Kong seems set to play the role of a venue for political experiments to modernize the entire country's government system. This requires that the opposition in Hong Kong continues to act. And it has lived up to expectations. It shows signs of weakening, however. Although as recently as 2003, when Hong Kong lived through a chain of misfortunes (an Asia-wide financial crisis, two epidemics, several setbacks suffered by its administration), the opposition could muster up half a million people in street marches, during the current celebration of the 10th anniversary of the handover, the figure was only twenty or so thousand.

By RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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