Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: No swan song for Hong Kong

Roundup: Historians' Take

[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."]

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.

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....

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