- Hong Kong's Colonial Legacy: A Hong Kong Chinese's View of the British Heritage
Hong Kong's Colonial Legacy: A Hong Kong Chinese's View of the British Heritage, by Lau Chi Kuen, joins a succession of new publications on Hong Kong's reunification with China in 1997, an event that drew worldwide media attention. In the past, the return of a colony to its motherland rarely generated global interest, but Hong Kong's reintegration with China was a historic event imbued with diverse and often contradictory meanings. In the West, the 1997 handover represented the forceful and cruel transformation of a vibrant, liberal, capitalist society into a communist city—as if history had taken a wrong turn. In London, the event marked the final, sad chapter of Britain's once glorious colonial rule in Asia. But to Beijing, it was an emotional and rightful end to more than a century and a half of national humiliation at the hands of Western imperialists.
Lau's book does not deal with these symbolic complexities, focusing instead on Hong Kong's colonial legacy, posing this question: what exactly did the British leave behind when they withdrew on the night of June 30, 1997, having ruled Hong Kong for 155 years? He then attempts to provide an answer by exploring a range of topics: what it means to be a Hong Kong Chinese, the nature of the colony's government, the laissez-faire economy, the decline of British commercial predominance and the rise of Chinese tycoons, the English language as the medium of communication, the Common Law judicial system, and the press.
Each of the book's seven chapters discusses a different aspect of Hong Kong's legacy. In the Introduction, a brief survey of the colony's history, Lau recounts the familiar story of Hong Kong's unsettled past, from its forced cession to Britain by the declining Qing dynasty, as a result of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 after the notorious Opium War, to the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 that mandated the resumption of China's sovereignty over the territory on July 1, 1997. Then, in successive chapters, Lau examines the growing identity crisis of Hong Kong residents during the uncertain transition period from 1984 to 1997 ; the executive-led government administered by a London-appointed governor, who ruled with political authoritarianism; the government's tight fiscal policy with minimal provision for welfare and economic growth; the rise of Chinese business interests; the politics of using Chinese as a symbol of national identity versus using English as a medium for global communication; and the unpredictable future of British Common Law and freedom of the press under the imminent Communist rule. In speculating on the future of Hong Kong, the author looks back at the British rule of this prized colony with approval: "As one looks [End Page 483] back at 155 years of British rule in Hong Kong, what matters more is that the British created on this small piece of Chinese soil a society founded on the rule of law, a respect for personal freedoms and a sense of fairness—an achievement that has eluded the 1.2 billion Chinese on the mainland" (p. 190 ).
This book succeeds admirably in presenting a succinct picture of the difficult and contentious transition period during the colony's final years, especially of the attempt of the last governor, Christopher Patten, to introduce elective democracy into Hong Kong on the eve of its transfer to Chinese rule. Patten's political reforms, as is now widely known, met with strong opposition from leaders in Beijing, who vehemently criticized his actions as imperialistic and prompted by vicious intentions to undermine the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. The book also explains the changes that accompanied the emergence of the Chinese influence in Hong Kong: decolonization and localization (a process by which natives were given priority in high-level...