As a former British colony that is now a special administrative region with sub-sovereignty status under a new master, Hong Kong is almost in a league of its own on the planet. But that doesn’t mean the city’s situation is totally unique.
Local historians Mo Loi-yau and Bennifornia Dreaming point out in a recent commentary that besides Macau, there are three territories that may offer some interesting comparisons to Hong Kong: Singapore, Gibraltar and Goa.
Hong Kong shares a lot of similarities with them: seaward location, tiny size, distinctively different historical background and varied economic and social systems.
In recent weeks, amid heated discussions over the city’s political future, some scholars and activists have suggested that Hong Kong should take a page from the other former colonies to explore ways to remain as an independent or semi-independent political entity and preserve its core values.
Now, is there any real merit in the suggestion? Before we examine the issue closely, let us first take a closer look at Macau itself, the other Chinese SAR that is just a short hop across the water from Hong Kong.
Macau: Beijing’s role model for Hong Kong
Lui Tai-lok, a well-known commentator and professor at the University of Hong Kong, notes in his book that as early as 1974, then Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose wrote in a confidential report to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office that Macau was exactly what Beijing wanted Hong Kong to be like.
In the 1960s both Hong Kong and Macau were embroiled in social turmoil triggered by China’s Cultural Revolution. The then Portuguese Macau authorities adopted the appeasement approach to resolve the crisis and let the pro-Beijing camp gradually take control of the enclave’s political affairs.
By contrast, the British Hong Kong government took a hard line on leftists and launched a slew of reforms in social welfare, economy and governance that were a prelude to the Hong Kong growth story since the 1970s.
Beijing’s talks with Lisbon and the 1999 handover all went without a hitch and Macau is now a patriotic and obedient SAR which enacted the pro-Beijing national security law in 2009. Willingly or not, Macau people have opted to trade freedom and democracy for economic prosperity, with Beijing pulling strings behind the scenes in the local political sphere.
“One country, two systems” in Macau is now a blurred concept, but people don’t seem to mind it as long as the economic carrots from Beijing keep flowing.
Singapore: what separatists want Hong Kong to be like
Interestingly, discussions about Singapore draw maximum attention in Hong Kong, from people having all sorts of political inclinations.
Members of the pro-establishment camp regard the Lion City as a vivid example of how authoritarian governance and ease of business can coexist in a meritocratic society while those who advocate Hong Kong independence see it as a proven path to a domineering state.
But the irony is that, the case of Hong Kong is all about the handover from one master to another –- Hongkongers were never allowed to make their own choice, neither in the Sino-British talks nor during the recent wrangles on electoral reforms. The reason is because China, a much bigger neighbor that insisted on regaining suzerainty, regards territorial integrity as its topmost interest.
While Singapore became a member of the then Federation of Malaya in 1963 after a referendum, Singaporeans never wanted to be independent until it was abruptly expelled from the union less than two years later. The separation came as Malaysian authorities insisted that indigenous Malays and tribes must be given special rights, as they harbored suspicions about Singapore’s ethnic Chinese population. Lee Kuan Yew was in bitter tears when he was forced to declare independence.
Hong Kong and Singapore have charted separate destinies due to different historical backgrounds. So, Singapore’s unexpected independence may be of little relevance to Hong Kong.
Gibraltar: what pro-colonial rule activists want HK to be like
Now let us look at Gibraltar, a picturesque British Overseas Territory located at the entrance of the Mediterranean and encircled by Spain. Similar to Hong Kong, districts made from reclamation house most of the local residents and there is also an airport built in the sea.
Except defense and foreign affairs, Gibraltar also enjoys a high degree of autonomy.
Part of the reason why Hong Kong could not remain as a British Overseas Territory just like Gibraltar is that New Territories — which makes up more than 85 percent of Hong Kong — was indeed leased from China for 99 years under the Convention for Extension signed in 1898. It’s obvious that without New Territories, Hong Kong would be unable to survive.
As for Gibralter, its entire area is permanently ceded to Britain. Another thing is that Gibraltar residents strongly oppose Spanish rule due to Madrid’s containment policies over the past century such as boundary closure and military threats.
It’s fair to say that although many Hongkongers were skeptical of China’s promise back in the 1980s, there was no strong voice opposing the handover. The Hong Kong independence movement only emerged in recent years when Beijing stepped up its interference in local affairs.
Goa: what everyone hopes Hong Kong will not be like
Goa is effectively India’s special administrative region on the western coast of the sub-continent. Now an individual state, Goa was once a Portuguese colony. New Delhi restored its sovereignty after a military assault in 1961.
Although it continues to maintain its own legal system and land leases, Goa today enjoys fewer autonomous rights compared with Gibraltar or Hong Kong.
But some fear that Hong Kong may eventually become another Goa as the pair faces some similar challenges: an overwhelming inflow of non-locals and their impact on the existing way of life and social systems.
Just like Hongkongers, Goa people now strive to preserve their own values. A movement has been on to press the central authorities into fulfilling pledges on self-governance.
There are other British Overseas Territories or semi-independent entities like Bermuda, Cayman, Virgin Islands, etc, but since most of them are isolated islets in the middle of vast ocean, they cannot be of any significant reference to Hong Kong.
Now, which do you think is the right model that Hong Kong should follow?
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