For Better or For Worse – the End of British Colonialism in Hong Kong


Ten years after the British departure, China and Hong Kong are getting along just fine.

Ten years ago, as the world watched, the last stalwart of the British Empire fell under the Communist flag. My home country – Hong Kong – was handed back to China.

Indeed, the buildup and anticipation for that changeover started long before that day in July, 1997. It started 13 years earlier, with the negotiations between then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and China. For Hong Kong people, it was a long drawn-out period of uncertainty, marked by a mass exodus of its citizens to the West. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people uprooted their jobs and families to start all over in a foreign country – myself being one of them.

Now ten years later, Hong Kong is still the celebrated metropolis it has always been – and more. The gloom and doom predicted in the months and years leading up to its handover did not materialize. In fact, in many ways, Hong Kong has entered the world stage: it hosted a World Trade Organization summit, acquired a Disneyland, and its citizens have assumed leadership positions at renowned, worldwide organizations. (Hong Kong resident Margaret Chan was appointed President of World Health Organization.) Instead of being ruled by expatriates like in colonial times, local Chinese are now running Hong Kong – from the Chief Executive to leaders in industry and business. Hong Kong is now a budding democracy, with political parties and elections of its own. As a mark of its prosperity, dozens of international non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), large and small, has set up shop there, to raise funds and to get a share of its wealth. True to form, making money still remains Hong Kong’s ultimate reason for existence.

In the last ten years, Hong Kong is not without its share of pains and challenges, but hardly of China’s doing. It has been devastated by public health scares – avian flu and SARS. Its economy was hurt by the Asian financial crisis – its astronomical real estate prices fell like a rock. Even more worrisome, it is fast ceding its leadership position to China – overtaking Hong Kong in the manufacturing and service sectors, with Shanghai posing as a threat to its financial sector. As a mark of Hong Kong’s resilience, its response to these challenges has made Hong Kong an even more desirable city. Its response to SARS turned Hong Kong into a very clean city. In the process of revitalizing its devastated economy, Hong Kong citizens became very polite and customer-service oriented.

Even more remarkable is its motherland, the Communist country once shunned and the reason for the mass exodus. Indeed, ten years later, China is emerging as a world power. It is now a country which inspires both fear and respect. It had launched its first space shuttle, and is hosting the Beijing Olympics. Chinese has become the most sought-after foreign language in America, and a visit to the Great Wall has become the prized trophy of many an American tourist.

So as we reflect on the last ten years, what has the Chinese takeover done to Hong Kong? As a testament to its ingenuity, Hong Kong has become better. It is now a country ruled by its own people, and identified by its own flag (and not the British flag). In becoming part of China, it has brought Hong Kong people’s hearts closer to its motherland. In implementing the turnover agreement of “one country, two systems,” there came the realization that they are really “one country, one people.” Instead of the old divide and antagonism between Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong people have now identified with the Chinese people and their well-being, and pouring millions of dollars for humanitarian aid in China. Hong Kong residents and Mainland Chinese are now melded on a daily basis: the former for work and commerce, the latter for tourism and spending in Hong Kong.

In coming into its own, Hong Kong has become the source of pride and dignity for the Chinese race.

Margaret Li, born and raised in Hong Kong, moved to Minneapolis with her family in 1988. She is Senior Director of Development for CARE in Minneapolis.