Current events have created a new perspective on Hong Kong: a transformed image from a materialistic, money-mad place, to a symbol of struggle for democracy and human freedom against the brutal totalitarian regime in Beijing, which is trampling underfoot the promise of “one country two systems” it gave in 1997 to the people of Hong-Kong, the promise of a high degree of internal autonomy, with the territory preserving its own legal system derived from English common law.
Could history have taken a different turn had the British government not so readily submitted to China’s demand that Hong Kong be returned to it, instead of offering the people of the Crown colony the option of holding a referendum for independence?
The territory of Hong Kong had all the makings of an independent state: a strong, diversified economy, an industrious and gifted people. In addition, it is twice the size of Singapore, that other power house in the region.
I remember an interview that a young immigrant businessman from Hong Kong gave a Toronto newspaper several years ago. Asked about his views on Canada’s political life and his choice of political party, he expressed indifference by stating that “in Hong Kong we left the politics to the British, while we Chinese made the money.”
That was in a nutshell the historical attitude of China’s mercantile-industrial class.
During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) China underwent a commercial revolution: while in Europe major cities counted their inhabitants in the thousands, China had seven million-inhabitant cities and markets prospered across rural areas as well as cities.
While in China even formidably wealthy merchants never challenged the monopoly on political power held by the emperor’s officials at every level, in Europe the much more modest bourgeoisie already in the Middle Ages wrested from kings and aristocrats a high degree of self-government in the towns, a current subsequently amplified in the age of the enlightenment when pressure mounted for democratic reform and revolutions.
It seems that change has come belatedly in the face of mortal danger. In the light of the current upheaval we behold now in Hong Kong the emergence of a young generation that rejects the supine mentality of their elders, that is even risking life in defence of freedom and democracy.
May history be kinder to them that it was to the martyrs of Tiananmen Square in 1989.