The Hong Kong handover hangover.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 29 2007 12:11 PM

The Hong Kong Handover Hangover

Ten years on, the natives are restless.

Painting by artist Liu Yuyi. Click image to expand.
Painting by artist Liu Yuyi

In Hong Kong, there are almost as many different names for the 10th anniversary of the city's handover to China as there are ways to commemorate the July 1 occasion. Loyal members of the People's National Congress, and of the DAB, the Chinese Communist Party's proxy in Hong Kong, prefer the retro-Maoist: "Celebration of the 10th Anniversary of Hong Kong's Return to the (Glorious) Motherland." The Hong Kong government spins it with the bureaucratic élan you'd expect from an ex-British civil service: "Celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."

Hong Kong's famously practical citizens have figured out what to do about Handover Celebration Word Bloat. They collapse the holiday's name into two Chinese characters: wuih gwai, an expression that, like so many in the wonderfully pun-filled Cantonese language, has multiple meanings. You can translate it as return—but it also can imply retrogression.

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The most popular shorthand for Handover Day, by far, is "Chat Yat"—that's Cantonese for 7/1. On July 1, 2003, more than a half-million Hong Kongers marched to oppose draconian government-proposed security laws and to demand universal suffrage. Since then, Chat Yat has become Handover Day's signature event (there's even a Hong Kong pub, Club 71, named after the march), challenged only by the traditional nighttime fireworks extravaganza.

Hong Kong's constitution, the Basic Law, promises that Hong Kong and China will be "One Country, Two Systems" until 2047, and it affirms that Hong Kong citizens will have the right, eventually, to vote directly for their chief executive. But the Basic Law's British and Chinese drafters took a few lessons from Cantonese in the Rubbery and Ambiguous Language Department. The Basic Law seems to say that Hong Kongers can cast ballots for their chief executive as early as 2007. But constitutional "experts" in Beijing and the Hong Kong government have reinterpreted the Basic Law, and year by year, they've nudged the timetable forward. Now they're talking 2017. Maybe. Even most of the Hong Kong legislature's pro-democrats have lowered their expectations and are pinning their hopes on 2012. It's no wonder that this year the words "Chat Yat" are usually followed by "Seung Gaai"—"Take it to the streets!"

How many Hong Kong people will seung gaai on the 10th anniversary? It's hard to say right now, and it will be even harder after it's over. Since Hong Kong lacks a free ballot box, counting human bodies in street processions is the Hong Kong equivalent of arguing over hanging chads. But if really massive crowds come out this year on 7/1, as in 2003 and 2004, the images and video will beam all over the world and make the bean-counter wars irrelevant. The Chinese government will look bad in front of the international community. And that is not going to make Beijing very happy. Indeed, you could argue that the very reason why Hong Kong got its 50 years of Basic Law in the first place, instead of a fast-track Return to the Glorious Motherland, is to avoid embarrassing situations like this.

The Hong Kong government has been working overtime to keep the protesters at the margins and ensure that the 10th anniversary follows the script. Last year, they hired extra PR muscle for the occasion, and the official anniversary events have been going on—and on and on—since April. The schedule includes everything from a "Basic Law Fun Day" and a Cantonese opera singing contest, to an "Election of the 10 Most Joyous Incidents" since 1997. Most of these feel-good handover events are harmlessly hokey, but some are a bit too retro-Maoist for comfort. The Cultural Revolution-meets-Sgt. Pepper commemorative handover painting, "Halcyon Days Pearl," with Hu Jintao and Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang playing the roles of Mao and Chou En-lai (or John and Paul) may remind many Hong Kong people of the reasons why they fled the motherland in the first place.