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Hongkong's historical myopia....II... IHT September 11

BY PHILIP BOWRING

HONG KONG For a territory faced with a stagnant economy and apparent lack of political leadership, the question of "whither Hong Kong?" is being asked more frequently than at any time since the 1997 handover. Is Hong Kong just going through a cyclical trough similar to that of some of its neighbors? Or has it lost its way, uncertain whether to forge a new and thoroughly Chinese future or to concentrate on being Asia's international commercial hub? .

One place to start looking for an answer is the recently opened Hong Kong Museum of History. This government-funded addition to the city's cultural life occupies a prime site near Kowloon's tourist hub. Its displays are attractive and, at the micro level, it would be hard to fault their accuracy. Even the map of China's shifting boundaries does not include Taiwan until the Ching Dynasty.

But the most striking aspect is what is not there. The museum fails to explain how and why a fragment of territory on the fringe of southern China that had hitherto played a minimal role in the nation's history rose in the space of 150 years to become one of the leading cities on the planet. . The museum shows coverage of the Opium Wars, a few pictures of British governors and foreign traders, and assorted artifacts from the modern era. But a visitor from Mars would assume that this metropolis was mostly the creation of the local farmers and fisherfolk whose traditional costumes, boats and customs are prominently displayed.

The museum largely ignores the reality that Hong Kong was built by the fusion of Western imperialism with international commerce - Asian and Western - and by the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of ambitious or desperate Chinese who descended on Hong Kong to escape chaos or the Communist Party. Hong Kong was built by refugees, especially those who came after 1949.

The three-year Japanese occupation receives massive treatment, but that is all the mention the rest of Asia gets. There is no reference at all to the Parsi, Filipino, Nepali and diverse Indian and other communities who have played a huge role in Hong Kong's success. Nor is there acknowledgment of the impact of Japanese commerce and capital, of the United States' vital role, or of Hong Kong's function as banker and bridge to overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and North America.

In short, the museum appears as a halfhearted attempt to underline Hong Kong's ethnic Chinese identity without facing up to its real role either in the modern commercial world or in its peculiar relationship with the motherland. . This might be of purely academic interest but for the fact that Hong Kong, according to its own rhetoric, is trying to emphasize its multifaceted identity. Its new logo proclaims it as "Asia's world city" and its leaders insist that it is becoming a global city to match New York and London. The reality is a little different.

Blatant racism, particularly toward darker-skinned Asians, is commonplace. The government insists that this is not a major problem and that no legislation is needed, even though Hong Kong identity cards discriminate between ethnic Chinese (of whatever nationality) and others. . Business leadership has passed from manufacturers, shipowners and bankers who had to be competitive internationally to property tycoons and other domestic interests that have undermined the city's competitiveness.

These problems predate the handover to China. But the unique advantages that Hong Kong has over other Chinese cities - its international links and its commerce-friendly, British-derived legal and other institutions - are downplayed by a leadership seeking to play up its "patriotic" credentials. . Meanwhile, local vested interests put obstacles in the way of attracting mainland talent - rather than cheap labor - to the territory. For all the talk of integrating with the mainland, Hong Kong still closes the border at night to protect local commercial and property interests from competition.

While Hong Kong stutters, Shanghai is showing the self-confidence to rekindle the internationalism and commercial spirit of its past. It makes no apologies for its history as epicenter of comprador capitalism. It has been alert to the merits of the colonial-era buildings that are a tourist attraction and that make foreigners feel at home.

None of this is to write off Hong Kong, which, despite high costs and a shortage of skilled labor, is unsurpassed as an international center for East Asia. But if it has such a fuzzy official view of its history and the sources of its dynamism, it can expect relative decline in the face of cities better focused on what they can offer the outside world. Outsiders are, after all, the raison d'Ítre of city-states. That is a fact of history. ends

 
 
 
 
 
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