In a glittering ceremony held at past midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong transformed from its role as the Asian jewel of the old British empire to become a window to the world of the awakening giant that is China. The handover, as this event is popularly known, marked the end of Britain’s 99-year lease of the New Territories that comprise the bulk of Hong Kong which was ceded to Britain after China’s defeat in the opium wars.
An open port city, Hong Kong had a reputation for being one of the world’s popular destinations for international tourists and shoppers. Like many growing cities in the region, it was preoccupied with the pursuit of wealth. Its people were comfortable in their freedoms and democratic way of life despite the taxes and high standard of living. Understandably, many were silently apprehensive that Hong Kong’s return to China will signal the start of a suppresive totalitarian regime in the city and bring about its death. One comforting development is the British government’s offer to Hong Kong citizens of becoming British citizens so that they will have the opportunity to leave when the transition takes place. Surprisingly, while almost 90 percent of the population took up the offer to become British citizens, fewer than 5 percent of these actually left the city.
Things did not come to a grinding halt after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Hong Kong is more alive than ever. The stock market is robust and property prices, a barometer of a country’s success, is at an all-time high. The extraordinary thing about Hong Kong is that life and business went on long after the dreaded handover to a communist state. As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong retains its capitalist character and plays an important role in transmitting China’s manufacturing power into the worldwide consumer goods distribution system.
In a sense, Hong Kong is a unique experiment of a socialist state using capitalism as an instrument for bringing about its own vision of a better and brighter tomorrow. Capsulized in the principle “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong is changing the face of China to the world as China is changing attitudes in Hong Kong towards China. With this deft playing of its Hong Kong cards, China hopes to change attitudes across the Straits of Formosa to bring about a peaceful reunification with its estranged brethren in Taiwan.