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The Hong Kong Crisis – book review

THE HONGKONG CRISIS by Gregor Benton, Pluto Press, A$9.95

If the subject — the future of Hongkong — was not so serious, this book would be a joke. As it is, The Hongkong Crisis is just misleading, misinformed and a miserable piece of pseudo- scholarship.

Hongkong, that cramped, capitalist British colony of journalistic cliche sitting on China’s southern rump, is counting the days to 1997, the year Britain is due to hand it back to China. The British and Chinese are at present engaged in secret negotiations on how and when the hand-over will take place, and the outline of an agreement is expected to emerge later this year. Hongkong’s 5.3 million residents, meanwhile, are wondering fearfully whether their way of life and their freedoms will survive once the territory is absorbed into the People’s Republic of China.

Mr Benton approaches the problem from the point of view of a radical western socialist, with reality taking a back seat to idealistic theories.

The British labour movement, Mr Benton says, should campaign to have the Britain military forces in the colony — 7,000 Gurkha and British troops — withdrawn. “If they were removed, British rule would be greatly weakened, and the colonial authorities would have no choice but to negotiate their own withdrawal.”

“Socialists in Britain could contribute to resolving the Hongkong problem by fighting to win the sympathy and support of the British labour movement for the anti-colonial struggle of its people,” he says. (The “anti-colonialist struggle”?? He has to be kidding. The people of Hongkong overwhelmingly would like the status quo, i.e. colonial status, to be maintained as the preferred alternative to becoming part of communist China.)

Britain, China and Hongkong have all declared their wish to preserve the territory’s “prosperity and stability”. Mr Benton naturally views this in class terms. “A struggle for the stability and prosperity of Hongkong’s workers will of necessity be a struggle against its millionaires and colonial bureaucrats.”

Given the chance, he adds, Hongkong’s workers and technicians “would no doubt sooner make goods useful in China’s modernisation drive than plastic toys and video games for the rich countries.”

It’s no good. He just doesn’t understand.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Mr Benton supports the ultra-liberal brand of socialism which sprang briefly to life in China in 1979 around Peking’s so-called “Democracy Wall”. The Communist Party of China should shrug off its Stalinist coat and become a democratic, benevolent body instead. Hongkong, he says, could become a catalyst in this process after re-unification, acting as a sort of democratic fifth column within the Chinese state.

“What is crucial is that Hongkong’s socialists do not compromise even one inch in their pursuit of full democracy. Only then can there be a hope of a new alliance between them and the movement of democratic dissent inside and outside China,” he writes.

Politically-aware workers are seen as the saviors of the situation, and with numbing irrelevence, Mr Benton points out that Hongkong now has about the same number of industrial workers as China had at the time of the communist revolution. “That they are now mainly quiet does not mean that they have all come to terms with capitalism,” he adds hopefully.

The fact is that Hongkong people don’t give a damn about politics. They just want to be left alone to make money, and to build their lives as best they can. By a quirk of history, the anachronistic British colonial structure has provided them with the framework in which to do just that, and very few people want the system changed for fear of damaging it.

Hongkong’s economic growth over the past three decades has been truly miraculous. It is now the world’s third-largest financial centre, the third-largest container port, and the biggest exporter of watches, textiles and toys.

Mr Benton’s views add nothing constructive to the debate on how to preserve this miracle.

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