HONG KONG HANDOVER
JUNE 29, 1997
On Tuesday, July 1, the British Flag will come down and the Chinese flag will go up over Hong Kong. Essayist Richard Rodriguez, considers America's relationship with China and how it affects our view of the handover. And in our Online Forum, you have the chance to talk to a university professor and a seasoned reporter about the mood in the city and what is happening in Hong Kong as it undergoes this transition.
A RealAudio version of this essay.
Talk with a professor and reporter currently in Hong Kong observing the handover
Read our first forum from January, 1997, on the handover of Hong Kong.
June 23, 1997: How the British will retreat from Hong Kong.
June 16, 1997: Will China's communism bring drastic change, or business as usual?
June 10, 1997: Just who is Tung Chee-hwa--the man who will take over Hong Kong when it is returned to Chinese control?
December 17, 1996: Human rights abuses in China.
November 21, 1996: Asia's dynamic and fast-growing economy. .
The NewsHour Asia Index.
The Sino British Joint Declaration outlining the agreement between Great Britain and China.
The Basic Law of the Special Administrative Region Government.
The Hong Kong Transition Project analyses politics over the transition period of 1984- 1997.
The Better Hong Kong Foundation is a pro-China, privately-funded organization formed by leading business people in Hong Kong.
A government overview of Hong Kong's economy.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Finally, the British are leaving Hong Kong. Here in America, a nation that began by casting off English colonialism, there is widespread unease. American business executives fly off to China to sign billion dollar contracts. But many other Americans imagine China as our possible opponent in a third world war. With the recent deflation of the Soviet empire, China now plays the part of our national antagonist--the dangerous "other." For months now, anticipating the British withdrawal from Hong Kong, various American politicians, human rights advocates, editorial page writers have all voiced our thoughts about China.
Even when China seemed less threatening to us, she remained alien in ways that England never was. In the 18th century Americans cast off Father England. But thereafter, Americans would always recognize our cultural ties to the British Motherland; whereas, the Chinese were inscrutable, the Far East mysterious.
Here in San Francisco, my Chinese city, when immigrants from Asia began to arrive in the 19th century, they made a hostility that cannot simply be described as racist, though racist it also was. California branded the newcomers celestials, as though they came from some other planet. The Chinese were restricted to China towns throughout California. There were murderous, drunken, anti-Chinese pogroms, and laws restricting the immigration of Chinese wives.
Many decades later, because of changes in U.S. immigration laws, Chinese-Americans live in every neighborhood of the city, the largest ethnic group now. We are transforming San Francisco into a Pacific Rim capital--no longer the quaint tourist town that fancied itself the Paris of the West. One hears in certain drawing rooms a gentile resentment against the change, grumbling about the fact that San Francisco is becoming a veritable Hong Kong. But everywhere in this city now East is meeting West.
Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of colonial England got it all wrong. The twain do meet. In my Chinese city of San Francisco I know Chinese-Americans who are Methodists; I know dishwashers and computer programers. Chinese immigrants live next door to Chinese-American families that have lived in California for generations. One hears all sorts of opinions about the old country, about the leadership in Beijing, about the fate of Taiwan, and now about the British withdrawal. In the early 19th century the opium drug wars were fought so that Britain might be free to act as drug lord to Asia.
Many in San Francisco today tell me that they date the British takeover of Hong Kong in 1842 as the beginning of China's dark modern history. A terrible history it has been this last century and a half in China: foreign invasions, civil wars, bloody revolution, famine, political purges, the oldest civilization on earth, the most ancient continuous civilization almost brought to collapse. By 1949, the average life span was barely 30. To escape the various calamities of China, her sons and daughters fled to points all over the world, to Africa, to Latin America, to Europe, here to San Francisco, and to Hong Kong.
There are many Chinese throughout the world who fear China's takeover of Hong Kong, fear that it will begin a new chapter of repression. But in the last few days some Chinese-Americans I know have flown back to Hong Kong to witness the end of British rule. Flights to Hong Kong from San Francisco have been booked for months.
Ling Chi Wong, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a friend, is traveling to the city where he was raised to see the union jack lowered. It is not liberation from the British that he is celebrating; it is liberation from a century and a half of calamity.
LING CHI WONG: I just want to be there and to be among the people and to get a sense of what it is like for this piece of real estate to be returned to the Chinese people.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The prospect of the Chinese century looming probably frightens many Americans. The oldest civilization in the world cannot live easily with one of the youngest democracies.
Our wild American individualism cannot easily comprehend a culture as intensely communal as China's. But it was Richard Nixon, a Californian, a man who made his political career as an anti-Communist, who recognized the inevitability of China for the United States. Perhaps that sense of inevitability is what those of us who live on the West Coast have grown to assume.
Standing here at the Pacific's edge I feel closer to Shanghai or Hong Kong than I do to London--always have.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.