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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 June 2007, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
10 years on in Hong Kong
By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Hong Kong

10 years after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, there has not been as much political change as people expected.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat races 1999
The Chinese festival of dragonboat racing is thousands of years old

The heat was oppressive but as the long, thin Chinese rowing boats sliced through the water, the crowd along the river bank burst into life, cheering and waving and urging the teams on.

The rowers were luminous in lycra, pounding the water to the beat of a Chinese drum.

The boats, each prow carved and painted as a rising Chinese dragon, flew towards the finish line.

The Chinese festival of dragonboat racing stretches back thousands of years.

Hong Kong loves it - partly because of pride in the Chinese tradition and partly because it is a great day out.

All around me small children, parents and grandparents were pressed against the rails, eating ice cream.

The mood amongst the spectators was relaxed.

Proud to be Chinese

Peter Wong, a portly property agent with thick glasses, greeted me with a beaming smile. At the time of the handover, he said, he had had mixed feelings. He had been proud Hong Kong was going back to China but he was also frightened. Now, he said, he was just proud.

"Politics, economics - everything is better now than 10 years ago," he said. "The mainland has really helped Hong Kong."

Others there said the same.

"I used to think of myself as a Hong Kong person", an IT specialist told me. "But since the handover, that's slowly changed. Now, I say I'm Chinese."

He too said he had been anxious then - but not any more.

"Before we were ruled by a foreign government," he said. "Now we're part of the mother country."

Hong Kong landscape (file photo)
Hong Kong's success is largely thanks to its capitalist economy
All this must be music to the ears of China's leaders in Beijing.

They have been eager to foster patriotism - a sense of unity and loyalty - in Hong Kong.

And despite the dire predictions in 1997, Beijing's handling of Hong Kong so far may not have been perfect, but it has not been bad either.

The economy is booming, businessmen are still making money and public institutions like the police, the courts and the civil service are still efficient and accountable.

Most basic rights - including freedom of speech and the right to protest - are alive and well.

Fighting for democracy

In a way, this general contentment is a disaster for the government's political opponents - especially those still fighting for democracy.

Today, there is little sign of the progress they hoped for.

Hong Kong's leader is still indirectly appointed by Beijing. Only half the legislators are directly elected.

Beijing is committed to giving Hong Kong democracy at some stage. But that is it. There is no timetable and no sign that Beijing is in a hurry to give Hong Kong people full control of their own affairs.

You may remember names like Martin Lee and Emily Lau - local leaders who were not afraid to speak out and became closely associated with the call for democracy. So how are they doing, a decade on?

I went to meet Emily Lau in Hong Kong's parliament building. She rushed to our interview from a press conference where she and fellow democrats had been urging the public to mark the tenth anniversary of the handover with a mass pro-democracy demonstration.

The last 10 years has given her an air of disappointment but she is no less determined.

I asked her how she thought democracy could come about.

"Ultimately", she said, "the real guarantee for a free and democratic Hong Kong is a free and democratic China."

That made me think she may be in for a long wait.

Growing underclass

Of course political change can come in the most unexpected ways. Although the middle classes and the tycoons are doing well, Hong Kong has a growing underclass. The gap between rich and poor is steadily widening. At the bottom of the ladder, discontent and anti-government feeling are quietly simmering.

Hong Kong was built on the dream of success. It has always been proud of being a place where you can arrive penniless, work hard and end up rich, even super rich. Now, it seems, that dream is dying. The Hong Kong economy is dominated, more than ever, by big corporations and wealthy tycoons. The small businessman is being squeezed out.

In the side streets of Wanchai, I walked round the market stalls, where hawkers sell trinkets and toys and cheap clothes. They are manufactured goods which used to be made in factories in Hong Kong but now come over the border from mainland China.

I met Miss Cheng, a middle aged woman with a thin face and pixie haircut. She was selling plastic and cork sandals. Did she want democracy?

"What's the point?" she said. "The government doesn't care about the poor. And if people aren't educated, if their standard of living is poor, why bother giving them the vote."

Across the lane, Ming Chan was crouched over his flower stall, preparing an extravagant bouquet of purple flowers. He too was cynical.

"In the past, if you were poor, you could work hard and get on", he said. "That's not true any more. In today's Hong Kong, you've got to be educated, a middle class professional. Not an uneducated entrepreneur."

So what about democracy, I asked. He laughed. "Democracy? The poor don't want a vote, we all want a better life".

"As for democracy", he added, "we barely know what the word means."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 23 June 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Hong Kong's decade under China's flag
21 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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