Hong Kong isn’t what it was. Under British rule it was meek and mild, careful not to rock the boat, forever nervous about its future under China. The rich bought property in Chelsea and Vancouver, put their children into good schools and universities in Britain and America, and did whatever it took to get another passport.
Nowadays Hong Kong fizzes with political radicalism. Last week mass student protests obliged the Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, to cancel the introduction of mandatory ‘patriotism’ classes in schools — that is, lessons for children about the superior nature of Chinese Communism. And the following day, at the Legislative Council elections, the democratic groups won enough seats to make life a lot harder for poor old C.Y., as he tries to fashion a system of constitutional reform which will please the Beijing leadership without bringing the demonstrators out on to the streets.
Now 58, Mr Leung is an engaging and clever chap. At 30 he ran the Hong Kong branch of Jones Lang Wootton, and at 31, 12 years before the handover, Beijing put him on the Basic Law Consultative Committee. As a result, he has never shaken off the accusation that he became a secret member of the Chinese Communist Party. Earlier this year, the Beijing People’s Daily even referred to him as ‘Comrade’, tongzhi, a term used only for party members. You won’t find that reference on the People’s Daily website; it disappeared directly there was a fuss about it.
Who made the fuss? The democrats in Hong Kong. Not just the grand old British-educated stalwarts like Martin Lee, but young kids, Hong Kong-born, bred and educated, who tweeted and posted internet messages about it. The same kids who, often supported by their parents, won their remarkable victory last Saturday by forcing Mr Leung to drop his plan for the ‘patriotism’ classes. The same kids who, year after year, turn out on the night of 3 June in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve noticed that there are more and more of them who weren’t even born when the massacre took place, back in 1989. And for the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, even more people turned out than did for the first one in 1990. That proclaims a real commitment.
Their elders still mostly prefer not to get involved; but the educated young of Hong Kong are far more radical, and fully aware that they live in a tiny bubble of freedom, which China only permits because it has to.
The results of Sunday’s election were complicated. The new pro-democratic People Power group won seats at the expense of the older Democratic Party, which, although its name is accurate, made the mistake of doing a deal with Mr Leung. It’ll think twice before doing that again. The largest party in the Legislative Council remains the charmingly named Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, which is pro-¬≠China and pro-Leung; but in those seats where direct voting was permitted, the pan-democrats (an ugly Hong Kong expression which smacks of the wok) beat the Beijing loyalists by 1.02 million votes to 766,000. Their tally of seats is enough for them to be able to veto any part of the new constitution that they don’t like.
On the night Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese hands, on 30 June 1997, I went to the British farewell ceremony. Long-term friends and servants of the ancien régime sat wearing their MBEs and OBEs in the pouring rain with the tears running down their faces while a soprano sang ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘We’ll Meet Again’. From there, with my wife weeping too, partly from emotion and partly because her Jimmy Choo shoes had been ruined, I splashed my way to the Convention Centre for the final, underwhelming handover ceremony. It was like holding school sports day indoors.
Soon afterwards, the royal yacht Britannia, brilliantly lit up, sailed past the Convention Centre, out of Victoria Harbour, with the Prince of Wales and the Governor, Chris Patten, on board; but I was at a party hosted by the Chinese government, and dozens of Hong Kong Chinese businessmen kept their backs turned to the windows and the magnificent sight outside, to demonstrate their loyalty to their new masters. ‘That’s how things are going to be here,’ I thought, with a shrug of my still-damp shoulders.
How wrong can one be? Hong Kong is now more independent, more fiercely defensive of its liberties, than anyone imagined. Since it enjoys complete freedom of access to information (something which China doesn’t permit the rest of its citizens), large numbers of people there, and especially the young, have come to regard themselves as belonging to the wider community of advanced nations, rather than as being a small offshoot of mainland China.
But I’d like to think it’s something else too: something to do with its history. Recently, at a banquet in Hong Kong, I sat next to a senior Hong Kong Chinese official who must have enjoyed Beijing’s support. He was distant and cold, until the evening’s entertainment arrived: the pipe band of the Hong Kong police, resplendent in their Mackintosh tartan, note-perfect and stirring. Afterwards I turned to him, and saw tears in his eyes. ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘I was an officer in the Hong Kong Regiment. I swore an oath of loyalty to Her Majesty.’
The old attitudes may sometimes have gone underground, like C. Y. Leung’s alleged Party membership, but they’re still around. In its final years as a British colony, Hong Kong became one of the freest societies on earth in terms of information and business practice. For two years before the hand-over, Transparency International declared it the most corruption-free economy on earth. Today, its people are still enjoying the results. And they won’t give them up easily.
John Simpson is the BBC world affairs editor.