Two shades of autumn
Maj Gen G G Dwivedi (retd)
THE diplomatic community in Beijing waited for July 1, 1997, with some degree of excitement. This was the day when Hong Kong was to officially revert to the mainland, marking an end of 156 years of British rule.
Hong Kong island had been acquired by Great Britain from China in 1842 as a sequel to the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing at the end of the First Opium War (1839-42). According to the 1898 convention, Hong Kong along with Kowloon Peninsula was leased to Britain for 99 years on July 1, 1898.
As we were winding up from the office on June 30, 1997, news was making the rounds that a large public gathering was anticipated at the Tiananmen Square late in the evening. After dinner many of us headed for Tiananmen. The crowd gradually began to swell and there was jubilation in the air. At mid-night, as the countdown clock indicating time left for Hong Kong to join the motherland came to a standstill at zero, there were fireworks and loud cheers ; ‘Xianggang lai la’ (Hong Kong has joined).
The next day, amidst pomp and pageantry, Prince Charles formally handed over Hong Kong to President Jiang Zemin. The former British colony became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region with Tung Chee Hua, a 59-year-old shipping magnate, as the first Chief Executive. Under the agreement “One Country Two Systems” Hong Kong was to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, wherein its socio- economic system and lifestyle would remain unchanged for the coming 50 years.
Many observers at that time were highly sceptical about China’s commitment to honour the agreement. They feared that over a period of time, authorities would go on to drastically curtail the rights and freedom of Hong Kong residents.
Two years ago I was on AI flight 102 from New York to Delhi. My co-passenger happened to be a Chinese, who had graduated from one of the Ivy Leagues in the US and was working with an MNC in Hong Kong. Earlier, it was only the children of influential Communist Party office-bearers who were privileged to study abroad. Today, as Chinese students outnumber the rest, especially in the USA, a majority are from a non-elitist background.
The young professional candidly admitted to be doubly lucky; most Chinese parents aspire to send their children abroad for higher education and a decent job in Hong Kong tops the wish list of an educated youth in the mainland. The individual was on a maiden visit to India and was headed for Bodh Gaya. Buddhism is fast becoming popular in China, as people are seeking greater choices in their personal lives.
Hong Kong of late has been in the news due to the student protests, dubbed the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. The main reason for the student unrest is Beijing backtracking on electing the next Chief Executive through universal suffrage; instead it is allowing only candidates screened by the ‘Loyalist Committee’ to contest.
President Xi has laid out a dream of a “prosperous and strong China”. With the 66th autumn of the Communist Party rule around, while the mainland Chinese seem to be content with the promise of prosperity, fellow countrymen in Xianggang are seeking prosperity along with democracy — a version of ‘Hong Kong Spring’.
Going by the Chinese ancient history, a period of ‘spring and autumn’ between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE was marked by internal state wars. Therefore, while PRC leadership seems to stand firm on the issue of ‘Hong Kong Spring’, it may relent, by offering — a different shade of autumn.