Outlook: Goodbye, Gweilo

Ann Marie Major
May 01, 1997

At midnight on June 30, 1997, the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong will become a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. As sovereignty over the Kowloon Peninsula, Hong Kong Island, and the New Territories is transferred from Great Britain to China, 6.3 million people will experience a shift from a tradition of 155 years of colonial rule to Deng Xiaoping's great experiment of "one country, two systems."

The question that hangs in the air over Victoria Harbor like the dead calm that signals the approach of the ruthless typhoon is how will the political transition transform this enigmatic city of contrasts. In the tourist world, Hong Kong means 24-carat gold; carved jade, ivory, and bone; cloisonné; and silk. Hong Kong also means the Star Ferry; crowded, double-decker, red buses that at first sight vaguely remind the traveler of London; the new, clean, efficient, and usually crowded subway and electric train service; inexpensive taxis; blazing neon lights; the Victoria Peak tram; and interminable crowds of people. But Hong Kong has another side. Hong Kong also means housing slums, crime, and air and water pollution.

For the past 15 years, Hong Kong has been the field station where I have been studying media use and public opinion about the 1997 transition. At the time that I began collecting data, residents had access to 37 daily newspapers and four television and four radio channels. Hong Kong's rich media mosaic provided readers with a melange of political opinion representing the political spectrum from the far left's Ta Kung Pao to the far right's Hong Kong Times. The question remains as to what will become of the news media in this city where, in spite of the fact that there exists no legal guarantee of a free press, the spectrum of published political opinion far exceeds that of any other country in Asia and perhaps the world.

During the tense period of negotiations between Britain and China, the proportion of opinion columns published in the rightist and leftist papers constituted 28 percent of the news content. The rhetorical style of the rightist and leftist newspapers differed dramatically in their framing of the signing of the agreement transferring sovereignty over Hong Kong to China.

Ta Kung Pao quoted Governor Edward Youde's declaration that "the agreement provides a sound basis on which Hong Kong can build its future." In contrast, the rightist press reported that "British Prime Minister Thatcher and the Communist Chinese officials have sounded the death knell for the residents of Hong Kong by turning the crown colony over to the land of tyranny."

The six Hong Kong-wide opinion surveys that I collected from 1982 to 1989 provide a glimpse into the world of the ordinary people of Hong Kong. What I found and what is often surprising to the western world is that Hong Kong residents view the transition with contrariety. In 1982, shortly after the negotiations began, many people who had fled the mainland to Hong Kong to escape Mao Zedong's communist victory in 1949 voiced strong apprehension about 1997.

However, even people who were pessimistic about 1997 still believed that two distinct advantages would result from China's administration. The Chinese people would be governed by their own people not the British, and the Chinese people would be reunified. The title of my book Goodbye Gweilo reflects this sentiment. The Cantonese word Gweilo means "Foreign Devil," and is used to refer to the non-Chinese population. It also reflects negative sentiment toward the 155 years of humiliation brought on China by western imperialism.

The years building up to 1997 have been tumultuous ones. In January 1985, following the signing of the Joint Declaration that guaranteed that Hong Kong's capitalist system would remain unchanged for 50 years, 83.6 percent of my respondents believed the future would be prosperous and stable. By November 1989, following the crushing of the democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, confidence in the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong had dropped to just 30.9 percent.

There is irony in the 28th and last British governor's efforts to expand democracy in the colony by extending suffrage to nearly 3 million residents not previously eligible to vote under British rule. Perhaps the greater irony is how short-lived Chris Patten's efforts are likely to be. Last December, a Beijing-appointed committee named shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa as Patten's successor. Tung's first move this year was to recommend the repeal of the 1991 Bill of Rights. Hong Kong's future viability as a field station is doubtful despite the Joint Declaration's promise of freedom of speech, press, and academic research. That doubt is echoed in the rapidly diminishing spectrum of published political opinion: Newspaper publishers and journalists have reported that they are already experiencing the veil of censorship.

Ann Marie Major, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Communications and research associate in the Australia New Zealand Studies Center, 111 Carnegie Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3069; amm17@psu.edu. This essay is drawn from her book Goodbye Gweilo: Public Opinion and the 1997 Problem in Hong Kong (Hampton Press of Cresskill, New Jersey, 1996), coauthored with L. Erwin Atwood, senior research associate in the Australia New Zealand Studies Center.

Last Updated May 01, 1997