ON JULY 1, 1997, 156 YEARS OF COLONIAL RULE came to an end, and the tiny enclave of diehard capitalism known as Hong Kong rejoined the communist "motherland." It rained through much of the leadup to the handover, and, despite celebrity concerts, processions, parades and an extravagant fireworks show over Victoria Harbour, when the clock struck midnight the crowds seemed puzzled about what to do next. Only one thing was certain, an era had come to an end.
The Chinese--who have a slogan for everything--say that Hong Kong and China equal "one country, two systems." The former colony is now the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and has been promised a high degree of autonomy and the freedom to continue its capitalist lifestyle for 50 years after 1997.
It's easy to forget that historically Hong Kong was part of China. After all, when the British annexed it in 1841, it was famously nothing but a "barren rock." And since then the colonial status of the island has reduced it in the popular Western imagination to a kind of Chinatown with large. If China is the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Mao and his adoring hordes armed with little red books, then Hong Kong is titleogether more homey: junks in the harbor, joss smoldering in backstreet temples, tiffin on the peak. If for British "expats" Hong Kong was a home away from home, China was that place "over the border."
Nevertheless, Hong Kong is Chinese. The British got it as spoils of the first Opium War with China, an insult that has never been forgotten. From the beginning Chinese flooded in. They came first from Guangzhou (Canton) and the southern provinces fleeing famine and the harsh rule of the Manchu Qing dynasty, most of them with nothing to lose and thus, with thrift and hard toil, everything to gain. The colony's second major attribute its nineteenth century British and European venture capitalists, were always a small minority. But what a combination those armies of opportunity-grabbing Chinese and dour ledger-worshipping inheritors of an empire made. Hong Kong couldn't help but make money. It has never stopped making money. It probably does it better than anywhere else in the world. When the communist revolutionaries marched into Shanghai, the textile barons took their money and even their manufacturing equipment to Hong Kong. and the colony retooled, fattened and diversified. By 1966, Hong Kong was not only the main Southeast Asian trans-shipment point for Vietnam war materials - its harbor packed with freighters-but it was also one of the most popular R&R (rest and recreation) venues for the American troops.
By the mid-1970s Hong Kong was moving from trade, textiles and toys to trade, international banking and finance and electronics, and vastly improving its housing and public transport infrastructure. By the early 1980s it was obvious that a new China was emerging, a more pragmatic China that was prepared to leave ideology simmering on the back burner while it got its moribund economy back in order. In l982, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Hong Kong for the first talks on the handover of the New Territories, whose lease was due to expire in 1997. In the event, Britain agreed to hand the whole lot back. The merchants of gloom have had a field day ever since.
Although it's still early days, one thing is obvious: The much-feared Anglo-Chinese agreement didn't sink the territory at all. If anything, Hong Kong gets more prosperous by the day. It is the jewel in the crown of the Pearl River Delta - which includes Macau and southern Guangdong-one of the front-runners of the new wave of Asian economic "tigers". It welcomes more than 11 million visitors a year, including over two million business travelers and package tourists from mainland China. The "barren rock" of 150 years ago is now one of the world's great cities.