Hand Back, Not Hand Over

HONG KONG -- On the plane to Hong Kong, a Chinese man was telling his young son about the Opium War and how the British humiliated the Chinese. That was 150 years ago, but he was not talking about "history" or dates -- the lesson of reunification involves the way events play themselves out, here and now.American press coverage of the events in Hong Kong has been filled with ominous warnings about the future. For the Chinese, the change marks a turn in the cycle of history, a chance to remedy past injustice with present action.American memory seemed to go back no further than Tianamen Square, when Chinese troops crushed the democracy movement, leaving scores dead and injured. Dan Rather on CBS stretching back a bit further, compared the "British retreat from Hong Kong" to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Hong Kong has merely traded one English-speaking master for a Mandarin-speaking master, opined another American commentator.A letter-writer in a local Chinese-language daily put it best -- "The West calls the return of Hong Kong to China a 'hand-over'. The Chinese call it a 'hand-back.'" In an alley, a business man has hoisted a giant float -- a balloon-sized Chinese mother reaching out to embrace her son.Articles appearing simultaneously in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times predict the U.S. will replace Britain now as the moral watchdog of China. As one Japanese-American journalist remarked, the U.S. has assigned itself the role of umpire, "not just writing the script, but making sure each actor recites his lines."A group of Indians who once worked in Hong Kong have returned to celebrate the British withdrawal. At dinner, they laugh about the view that Hong Kong owes its economic transformation to British foresight and fair play. "Remember," says one, "how people rioted back in 1966 because the government tried to crush strikers demanding one day off a week?"Queen's Road Central, the heart of British Hong Kong, looks and sounds like Manila. Thousands of Filipino maids spread newspapers on the pavement and sit gossiping, singing, and manicuring each other's toenails. Asked if they are worried that China will deport them, the women laugh. Their Hong Kong employers would riot. "They want their children raised by English-speaking nannies who have manners, not by mainlander Chinese."But the doorman at a guest-house, a 25-year-old Nepalese, admits he will likely be replaced by a Chinese from across the border in a year. He is philosophical, however. He saves HK$1500 of his monthly earnings of HK$2000 for the future when he may have to find another work haven in the world.He has the confident air of someone who knows what life is about, who knows that Hong Kong -- which once attracted the desperate poor, but is now one of world's most expensive cities -- is only one example.Indeed, though Western politicians warn of killing the goose that lays the golden egg, mainland China has achieved an economic miracle more astonishing than that of Hong Kong. The United Nations Development Program announced last month that China has raised half of its population from below to above the poverty level within the last twenty years."It's curious how little the U.S. media makes of China's accomplishment," says Professor Ling-chi Wang, a Chinese-American scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who spent his early boyhood in a corrugated metal shack on a Kowloon City rooftop. "Could it be that we Americans are embarrassed to credit China with something we ourselves have given up on?"He recalls, "Hong Kong used to be a city where you grew up thinking you had no future," but this day is spent riding various forms of public transit--hovercraft ferries, electric trains, buses--through the New Territories, once a land of squalid villages and resettlement camps. Now each village is a mini-city of skyscrapers. Escalators ascend to vast shopping malls teeming with department stores, restaurants, day care centers, and movie theaters -- even a vast ice-skating rink.In the older town of Yunlong, the buildings are shabby, balconies still substitute for air-conditioners, and the streets look and smell like Hong Kong of memory. In a deem-sum house, a man and his wife sit reading newspapers. He will celebrate the five-day holiday, he says, sleeping. He has no feelings about what's going on.Back at the elegant Mandarin Hotel, Professor Wang orders a bottle of champagne to celebrate. He is less worried about how China will behave than about how the US media's demonizing of China will affect American foreign policy."We're witnessing the most dramatic transformation out of poverty history has ever seen. Yet, instead of awe, America's elites are fearful. Maybe it's no longer China that must come to terms with history but the United States."

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