By Clay Haskell
Arizona Daily Wildcat
October 2, 1997

Hong Kong after the pomp and circumstance


Arizona Daily Wildcat

Clay Haskell

The biggest media circus of this decade wasn't caused by a celebrity murder trial. It had nothing to do with a large explosion in the Midwest, nor even the sudden and tragic death of a princess. Yet like any circus, this one set up a tent, entertained for a week and then promptly disappeared like so much cotton candy. Stumped? I'm talking about the hand-over of Hong Kong.

No city has ever seen the intense media scrutiny that Hong Kong faced during the last week in June. When a soggy Prince Charles said farewell and sailed into the night, the world's eyes and ears waited for the Tiananmen tanks to roll in. By the next morning, however, it became clear that China just wasn't going to open fire on its newest and most prosperous city. Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Bernard Shaw had competed with 20,000 other international journalists for news that never happened. So, the tent came down and the world's media forgot Hong Kong.

That is when the changes began.

When compared with gunfire, the changes in Hong Kong seem minor. Movie theaters are now required to show a short preview with the Chinese National Anthem playing over sweeping images of the motherland. Schools will no longer be allowed to teach English as a primary language after this year. In fact, they won't even be teaching in Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Hong Kong. Instead, courses will be taught in Mandarin, which is favored in Beijing. Similarly, textbooks are being pared down to convey a distinctly different history. Newspapers here, including the widely read English daily South China Morning Post, now employ "China Advisors." The result? No longer do they mention June 4, the date of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and rarely do they print stories that put China or its leaders in a negative light.

Perhaps most telling is the way that laws about protest have changed. Under British rule, it was enough for protesters to inform police of their plans before they marched. Now, they must ask permission. Of course, this was one of the first new laws to get tested, and this year's World Bank summit here presented a perfect opportunity. Several groups planned a joint protest according to the old rules, and they informed the authorities of their plans to march. At the last minute, the police called to give them permission.

At the scheduled time, 150 demonstrators from different backgrounds gathered at the Legislative Council building to chant, sing and perform plays denouncing the World Bank's policies. Meanwhile, the police scribbled into notebooks and looked on from behind video cameras. After an hour, the protesters decided to march to the Convention Center - the site of the World Bank meetings.

Along the march the police were cordial, even helpful. Dozens of officers scurried ahead to stop traffic and keep the accompanying onlookers from getting run over. As the protest group neared their destination, however, it became clear that the authorities were in control. Two blocks from the Convention Center, the protesters were herded into a sealed off area and surrounded. To their dismay, they were too far from the World Bank meetings to be seen. Frustrated, a few protesters went chest-to-chest with the police and began to push. As the local media swirled around them, five marchers were hauled off to jail.

Two days later, a follow-up rally drew 16 demonstrators and 250 policemen. No arrests were made, but the overwhelming presence of the authorities kept the protest fervor in check.

China has learned its lesson from Tiananmen Square, but it is not the lesson that the West had hoped for. Obviously, the images flashed around the world of People's Liberation Army soldiers firing on their own people gave China's leaders a black eye. But the repercussions weren't enough to topple their ideologies. Instead, China's leaders have learned not to get another black eye.

In Hong Kong, where democracy, human rights and freedom of speech are comparatively sacred institutions, China has allowed them to continue, but not without flexing its influence. Next year will see elections in Hong Kong. However, the post- handover constituency has been reduced to mainly pro-China groups. Human rights are still observed here. That is, you have to really try in order to get arrested. And, free speech is still practiced, just not when it comes to issues that the Chinese government doesn't like.

This is not to say that there is no longer a circus-like atmosphere in Hong Kong. The demonstrations continue, power still changes hands, and the reporters keep reporting. But there is an uneasy feeling in this circus. China is no longer a sideshow, rather, it has become the ringmaster.

Clay Haskell is a non-degree seeking graduate student currently in Hong Kong on a Fulbright Fellowship.


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