Six Million Serfs

TEL AVIV: The handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China (barely one month old) went beyond the merely political to become a spectacular pageant, celebrating both the return of a lost territory to the Motherland as well as a symbolic end to what was the world’s most far-flung Empire. Hence the strange mixture of emotions during the event, leaving the whole spectacle to hover somewhat uncertainly between Verdi’s Aida and Wagner’s Gotterdammerung.

Yet among all the speeches and fireworks of this TV extravaganza, one aspect was totally overlooked: the political will of the six million citizens of the British Crown Colony, now transferred -- without ever having been consulted in any way -- from an imperial, albeit recently liberal, colonial rule to that of the largest non-democratic and repressive regime in the world today. That deliberate, and deliberately undemocratic, oversight, is one of the most worrying precedents set by the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control.

The major terms of reference overshadowing the Sino-British negotiations which led to the 1984 handover agreement were the conditions set down in the 19th century lease through which Britain acquired most of the territory of the colony of Hong Kong (of which, the major portion of the land was actually on mainland China), having gained the initial imperial foothold on Hong Kong island itself through sheer force in two Opium Wars. In the agreement hammered out by Mr. Deng and Mrs. Thatcher in the early 1980s, Britain appears to have gained some guarantees about the continued existence of Hong Kong’s freewheeling capitalist economy even under Beijing’s rule (‘one country, two systems’ is the vague, if celebrated, expression coined by Mr. Deng). But nowhere did the expression of the political will of the Hong Kong inhabitants themselves come into the power equation.

Hong Kong’s people were never asked: Would they be interested in ‘returning’ to a Communist China which many of them have fled over the decades of Communist rule? Would they perhaps prefer independence or some sort of internationally guaranteed autonomous, self-governing status? Or would they perhaps even have preferred, God forbid, to retain some nexus to the British Crown as a self-ruling dependency?