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No swan song for Hong Kong

Ten years after the transfer to China, it fears Shanghai's resurgence. But reinvention may sustain its cachet.

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom / June 27, 2007



Irvine, Calif.

What will become of Hong Kong? Many residents of the city asked this a decade ago, in the anxious days before the Hong Kong handover of July 1, 1997. And some still pose it nervously today, as the 10th anniversary nears of Hong Kong's transition from a British crown colony to a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China. The mix of concerns behind the question, though, has shifted.

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In 1997, the big worry was Hong Kong's future relationship to Beijing.

Would the Communist leadership keep its promise of minimal interference in local life? Would Hong Kong – which had recently gained a more open press and stronger elected bodies than ever before (good-bye presents from a colonial regime on its way out) – quickly become as politically closed as any mainland city?

Now, while some locals still worry about Beijing's political shadow, others are more concerned about the economic shadow cast by a different city to the north: Shanghai. They fear the fallout from its rapid rise, regaining the global prominence it had circa 1930.

The anxiety over politics has not gone away, of course. Civic-minded Hong Kong residents are worried (for good reason), for example, by increasing censorship and self-censorship on the part of the press, though they realize their media remains far freer than that in any mainland city.

Still, the shift of concern from 1997 to 2007 is clear. With Shanghai rising, Hong Kong is anxious about protecting its status as China's most open – and most modern – city. Both claims were secure in 1987 when I first went to Hong Kong, midway through a year of research in Shanghai. To go from one to the other then was to move from one world to a completely different one.

Shanghai's newspapers all looked alike and took identical editorial lines. Hong Kong's varied in style and substance. Shanghai's nightlife was non-existent. Hong Kong's was hopping. There was no yawning gap between rich and poor in Shanghai. There was in Hong Kong. Shanghai had no freeways, subways, skyscrapers, or even drugstores with more than one brand of toothpaste. Hong Kong had all of those things. And so on.

In 1987, when I told Shanghai friends I was Hong Kong-bound, they excitedly asked me to tell them all about it when I returned. When I got to Hong Kong, people said they found Shanghai's history fascinating, but that I must find it hard living there. Moving between Shanghai and Hong Kong recently has been different. The former now has more skyscrapers than the latter. Shanghai newspapers no longer look interchangeable, though they still lack cartoons mocking Beijing's top leaders – something found in some Hong Kong publications. And in terms of divides between haves and have-nots (and consumer choices), the two have equalized.

When I tell Shanghai friends I've just come from Hong Kong, they aren't particularly curious. They don't think of it as having much Shanghai lacks. On stopovers in Hong Kong, people no longer sympathize with me for having to spend time in Shanghai. They tell me how much fun they had in Shanghai on their last trip. Or they ask, "Do you think our city has a chance, now that Shanghai is resurgent?"

That question takes me aback. Asking it implies that the competition between a region's leading urban centers has to be a zero-sum game.

I've tried pointing out that Hong Kong has important things going for it. You can still say and do things in public there that you can't do in Shanghai – praise or buy books by the Dalai Lama, for example. And it still has the more important stock market.

And I've tried stressing the economic interconnectedness of the two cities. Hong Kong developers have helped bankroll many Shanghai buildings projects, and some recent top-grossing Hong Kong movies, such as "Kung Fu Hustle," were shot in Shanghai. For these and other reasons, what happens in Shanghai often benefits at least some Hong Kong people, and vice versa.

But these approaches have rarely reassured. Shanghai is so big and attracts so much global attention that the impression lingers of Hong Kong's days of greatness being numbered.

So now I've begun stressing Hong Kong's capacity for reinvention – demonstrated so well when it remade itself into an alluring destination for travelers and shoppers after World War II. If Shanghai is attracting investors and tourists who once looked to Hong Kong, this need not signal disaster – just time for another makeover.

A California analogy seems apt. Los Angeles was once in San Francisco's economic shadow. Then the reverse became true. But San Francisco didn't cease to be a great city. It just became a different sort of one. One that made the most of spectacular hills and a stunning natural harbor … two things Hong Kong also possesses.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of "China's Brave New World – And Other Tales for Global Times."

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