Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Britannia rules, colonists drool

Much has been made in the last couple of days about the Falklands' vote to remain part of Britain. The decision was almost unanimous. How almost? There were three people (out of about 1,700 votes cast) who voted to leave British rule. That the Falklanders (Falklandians? Falklandish?) do not want to become part of Argentina--or at least leave the aegis of Britain--is abundantly clear.

Meanwhile, in another former British colony, Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post took a poll about how the Hong Kongers might hypothetically feel about returning to U.K. rule. The result was that nearly three in four respondents wanted to stop being a Special Administrative Region and get back to the good old days of the British Empire.

That would seem to be a pretty solid endorsement. But there are a couple of things that bear noting.

First of all, there are a few nuts and bolts issues. It's an online poll; anyone with an Internet connection can vote. That means there is no way of guaranteeing a good sample... or even guaranteeing that the voters are in Hong Kong. To put it another way, it's not remotely scientific. Maybe if it were, it would still get the same results. But even in that case, there's another problem.

Without additional questions, there is no real way of getting at the motivations for people's votes. In other words, do Hong Kongers yearn to be British pseudo-subjects again, or do they just not want to be part of China? What if another question or voting option were, "Should Hong Kong be an independent country?" What would the responses be?

This is important, because there is a lot of subtext to both the rejection of China and the embrace of Britain. Hong Kongers, in general, harbor a certain amount of annoyance and resentment of China, which many see as kind of an uncultured older brother. Mainlanders are derided for stuff like pooping in public, invading Hong Kong stores in search of baby formula and even swarming Hong Kong hospitals.

As far as ads go, it's not particularly subtle.

Every year since the handover, there are massive street demonstrations on July 1 by Hong Kongers who want to make sure China knows they value political autonomy, freedom of speech, and so on.

Many voices, (basically) one message.

In short, Hong Kongers seem warily OK with being part of China as long as China doesn't get too much up in their business. When it seems like mainland influence is becoming too strong--for instance, when there was a push to get pro-China history courses in Hong Kong schools--people flip out a little bit.

So when given the choice of playing by China's rules or Britain's, it's pretty easy to see how polling results would play out.

And to be perfectly fair here, British rule of Hong Kong went pretty well. I have visited other former imperial colonies that suffered from more oppression and economic manipulation, and are in much worse shape today. And it's not like anyone went around tearing down British statues here after the handover. Hong Kongers, at least the ones I have met, don't have much bad to say about the way things were.

The problem, in the end, is that the poll results represent a false dichotomy. In a whole universe of choices about who is in charge, it's hard to say what Hong Kong might decide it wants.

Britain didn't really have a choice about returning Hong Kong to China in 1997; the airport and most of the water supply were in the part of Hong Kong on which the 99-year lease was running out. (Hong Kong island could have remained Britain's in perpetuity.) Today, Hong Kongers don't really have a choice about whether they can leave Chinese rule.

But if you were to ask me my opinion, my one-man poll would show I think Hong Kong could function pretty well as an independent city-state, except for the small issue of funding a military.

1 comment:

Martyn Cornell said...

I find it fascinating that you see more people wearing Union Jack-decorated clothing or carrying Unon Jack-decorated bags in Hong Kong than you will ever see in London. But Gibraltar is exactly the same: the people all look Spanish, they all speak Spanish at home, and they all want to remain British. It's a dislike of that big neighbour to the north, with all his problems ...