In Hong Kong again after a couple of years away, I am just beginning to understand just what I love about this city, and why I keep on returning – my 23rd visit in less than two decades.
I was first here in 1997, six months before the handover to China. To say the mood was tense then would have been an understatement. If Hong Kongers had had a say in their future there was little doubt they would have voted overwhelmingly to retain their links with Britain.
I remember one interview with a local businessman who savaged the 19th century British diplomats for negotiating just a 99-year lease on the New Territories in 1898.
“Why the hell couldn’t they have bought the land outright – or at least got a 999-year lease. They could have done it then when they had the power and we wouldn’t be in this mess now,” he told me then.
The man had secured exit insurance – residency status in Canada – and would use it if his worst fears of a Chinese takeover came true. But six months later he was still there for the handover and perhaps the most poignant moment in my reporting career when Governor Chris Patten stood to attention, getting soaked in monsoon rain, as the Union flag came down for the last time at dusk on June 30, 1997.
And he was still there six months later when I returned to find out just how well the former colony was faring as a Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic. The fact that the Asian Financial Crisis broke almost literally the day after the handover provided the distraction the business community needed. A crisis, but one they understood and believed they could handle
While I no longer have contact with my original interviewee, I suspect he is still in Hong Kong, his Canadian exit strategy unused and long since forgotten. The city has faced many challenges since then: SARS, which I covered extensively, bird flu and, of course the Global Financial Crisis, but its people are resilient and the feeling is that whatever obstacles are placed in their path, they will always be overcome.
Hong Kongers are willing to talk, sometimes endlessly, about their problems, China’s and the world’s. But unlike whingers elsewhere they always come up with constructive solutions.
And if that flies in the face of policies from Beijing, then so be it.
The One Country Two Systems approach for the governing of the Special Administrative Region, originally proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, is holding, but Hong Kongers are continually pushing the envelope, wanting more democracy, more human rights, more freedom to choose the path they tread.
And that’s another reason why I love the place and its people.