“Hong Kong, as we know it today, was entirely unintended by history.”
Hongkongers may be bewildered by remarks like this, but that’s the conclusion of some pro-Beijing commentators, even by a Global Times editorial.
The thinking is that Hong Kong’s success, particularly its economy, is purely fortuitous, a strange quirk of history.
Without it, Hong Kong might have remained a barren rock and a sleepy fishing village.
Hongkongers admit that to some extent, the argument is valid. History has always favored Hong Kong even when upheavals convulsed China.
If the Qing dynasty navy had not been crushed by the British during the 1842 Opium War, along with the cowardly Daoguang (道光) emperor, there might have been no Hong Kong.
Without Winston Churchill and the Chinese civil war, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek might have reclaimed Hong Kong after Japanese troops withdrew at the end of World War II.
Similarly, had it not been for an order from Mao Zedong to stay put, a People’s Liberation Army garrison in Guangdong might have “liberated” Hong Kong from the British in 1949.
When calamities ravaged the mainland in the 1950s and throughout the Cultural Revolution, Beijing refrained from retaking Hong Kong, allowing it to develop as a crown colony.
Decades later, Beijing would reap a handsome dividend in a gleaming trophy handed to it on a silver platter on the night of June 30, 1997.
Those commentators might have a point in concluding that Hong Kong’s lucky run was a fluke.
But was it?
By the same logic, can we conclude that Deng Xiaoping’s historic choice of Shenzhen as ground zero for his economic revolution is all there is to its success?
Can we say that the trade monopoly enjoyed by Guangzhou (Canton) during the Ming and Qing dynasties the only reason for its rise as an economic powerhouse?
That same logic would make Shanghai extremely lucky because of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking which made it one of four treaty ports where foreign merchants were allowed to do business freely.
Can we say that that treaty and subsequent land concessions to foreigners were the only reasons Shanghai became the largest urban center in the mainland?
And by the same token, can we conclude that the United States came to being and became the most prosperous country on earth because the rest of the world, particularly Europe, was gripped by tumult and misfortune?
One would know these propositions are erroneous.
The truth is cities and nations can orchestrate their own growth and development when the opportunity arises.
Hong Kong, like many advanced economies, is not luckier but simply better prepared to take advantage of opportunities at every juncture of its history.
Just like the concept of demographic dividend or peace dividend, “historical dividends” for Hong Kong came when China was consumed by political strife up until the 1990s.
A word of advice to Beijing loyalists and Hong Kong-bashers: Go back to history class.
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Events that could have changed Hong Kong as we know it
Why Beijng was not too keen to retake Hong Kong at the outset
Shanghainese in Hong Kong: a tale of two cities