Hong Kong Diary: June 30, the day of the handover

Simon Winchester's Hong Kong Diary -- Fifth Installment, June 30: Just what did China's president Jiang Zemin mean by "vicissitudes"?"

Published July 7, 1997 7:33PM (EDT)

and so the rewriting of history begins. It was only 10 minutes, maybe less, into the long-awaited resumption of China's superintendency over Hong Kong, when we heard a new and very curious phrase -- a reference, by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, to the "vicissitudes" that Hong Kong and its people have supposedly suffered during the last century and a half of British colonial rule.

Perhaps it was the translation -- perhaps the president actually meant "difficulties" or "trials" or "periods of turbulence." We won't be sure until the official English version of the speech is offered, in a day or so. But whatever the phrasing's imprecision, it does seem abundantly clear that the new ultimate leader of Hong Kong thinks, and is telling his new subjects to think, that the past century and a half have been difficult times for the territory, and that now China has taken over, everything is going to be just fine.

Most of us who were listening to his speech -- which the president made just after jackbooted Chinese soldiers had raised the Chinese flag and goose-stepped down from the podium -- were mildly surprised, to say the very least. For wasn't it in fact China that had suffered, or had weathered, most of these supposed vicissitudes of history?

Wasn't it China that had undergone, for example, the 1911 Revolution, had put up with the long traumas of the warlords in the '20s, had seen the great civil war between Mao's men and those of Chiang Kai-shek, had undergone the 1949 Communist Revolution, had suffered the terrible trials of the Great Leap Forward, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, the terrors of Tiananmen Square? Hadn't these been China's problems, rather than Hong Kong's?

What "vicissitudes" had Hong Kong ever suffered? The Japanese invaded in 1941, to be sure -- and there is no doubt that was a vicissitude writ large. But otherwise, essentially nothing. There was not a single trial or period of turbulence in the colony that was truly worth its name -- just the odd typhoon, the occasional revelation of a small-scale scandal and a few riots sparked off by Mao's agents during the time of the Little Red Book. Otherwise, total (and occasionally, for a journalist, rather tedious) social and political peace.

It was the very fact that the territory was invariably so stable, so free and so prosperous that prompted so many millions of frightened Chinese to swarm there over the decades. Its stability and freedom from vicissitudes allowed them to prosper in turn -- to the point where the riches of this little colony are now of staggering dimensions, and are the source of much pride and no little envy.

And yet now, to judge from this first speech, the history books are to be changed, the perspective is to be altered.

China is in control now, and as so often results from the kind of totalitarianism her rule brings in its train, truth becomes the first casualty of the change. Listening to the Chinese president sent a chill down a million collective spines. The people I was with had to blink hard, and to ask around them: Did he really say that? Did he really think Hong Kong was a place that had suffered, and now would not do so again, forever?

The ceremonial that preceded all of this was inexpressibly sad, a sadness made infinitely more so by the onset, as had been feared, of quite atrocious weather. Or at least weather that was atrocious in part. At the very moment that the British soldiers made their formal farewell salute to the monarch's son, rains burst from the sky, drenching everyone, the prince included. Yet while it was windy and wet at the place where the British were leaving, just 40 miles to the north, where the first of the 4,500 Chinese soldiers to be garrisoned in Hong Kong were sweeping into the territory, all was quite dry and still.

The augury was poor, at least so far as the departing British were made to feel: an ill-tempered prince and a teary-eyed governor quitting in the rain, a glittering array of Chinese soldiers roaring in to take their place, with the weather clear and fair. Some benign Oriental weather god, it will no doubt soon be said, was smiling down on the new masters, and was betimes telling the old to get out, to push off, just as fast as their legs could carry them.

Jiang Zemin's brief speech came two hours after this weather god's augury. The former colony was in for better times, he said, was in for a period of benign invigilation by a China who would see to it there were no further vicissitudes to suffer. He clapped himself down from the podium. His soldiers shouldered their rifles and goose-stepped away. Thirty minutes later all the Britons were sailing away on their ships: The territory was China's once again. And the inhabitants started to go home, mouthing the word "vicissitudes" as an early sign of the enormous new reality that such a change seems now surely bound to imply.

By Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is a contributing editor for Salon Wanderlust. He has previously written about Hong Kong, the Kurile Islands and China.

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