- The China Difference
British Prime Minister John Major went to Beijing in the summer of 1991 to talk with China’s leaders about Hong Kong—duty-free port, international city, and capitalist success story. As 1997 approaches—the year of the colony’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty— fears of total collapse have attenuated as Hong Kong has emerged as the banking and financial center for the growth of export-oriented capitalism and overseas investment in China’s most rapidly developing region— its southeastern coast. Hong Kong’s continuing status as financial and transportation hub for Southeast China will depend on construction of its new airport, and the details of the airport’s financing were the main items on the British PM’s agenda. Since he was the first Western leader to visit post-June 4, 1989 Beijing, though, PM Major also made the obligatory register of “concern” for the Chinese government’s violations of human rights that have continued in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident.
The airport discussion was concluded to China’s and Britain’s satisfaction. On the matter of human rights, though, PM Major got a stern dressing down from Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng. The British leader, argued Li Peng, was singularly unqualified to comment on China’s treatment of its citizens. Britain had been the major player in imperialist aggression against China, in the Opium Wars (referred to in Britain as the first and second “Anglo-Chinese Wars”), in forcing unequal treaties on China, including extraterritorial rights and privileges for British subjects on Chinese soil, and in the colonial occupation of Hong Kong and adjacent territory. And moreover, added PM Li, Chinese and Western standards for human rights are not the same. The situation was a curious one. Both leaders were intent on maintaining Hong Kong’s status as an international and a Chinese city. Britain’s government has clear economic interest in preserving Hong Kong’s present character as completely as possible, but perhaps has an even larger stake in insisting on its Chineseness, stemming from the fear of the influx of hundreds of thousands of post-1997 refugees—whose legal status is currently “British Dependant Territories citizen”—“back home” to Britain. In admonishing China’s government on human rights, though, PM Major was castigating China for failure to adhere to international, i.e. Western, standards. Beijing in the spring of 1989 was the first counter- revolution to be televised. After Berlin, Bucharest, Prague, and Moscow showed how History should operate, though, China’s exceptionalism—its teleological failure—became more egregious.
In the summer of 1991, local news coverage in Hong Kong was dominated by the massive effort to raise funds for disaster relief in the wake of central China’s disastrous summer flooding and by the upcoming elections to Hong Kong’s legislative council (18 out of 60 seats are chosen by direct election). The capacity of the Hong Kong population to identify and sympathize with the sufferings of the Chinese people was indicated in the enormous success of the fund-raising drive— over six million dollars collected in a few weeks from a population of 3.5 million. (I will refer again to this capacity in a different context below.) The election in September resulted in a decisive defeat of candidates associated with either the Chinese Communist Party or with British colonial authority. The low voter turn-out—under 40%—also belied the colonial government’s claim that “voting is power.” Hong Kong’s citizens, in their rejection of the politics of both the Prime Ministers who met in Beijing, and in their identification with some idea of “Chineseness,” thus enacted the ambiguity of the soon-to-be-ex-colony and international city.
This ambiguity is symptomatic of the ambiguities which surface whenever “China” is enacted in contemporary discursive formations. It is from within this kind of ambiguity that Rey Chow writes. Rey Chow is originally from Hong Kong and is now Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Her own situation—“a ‘Westernized’ Chinese woman who...