Reporter's Notebook: Looking Back at 10 Years of Chinese Rule in Hong Kong

July 1 will mark the 10 year anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese after 156 years of rule, but a decade later, it’s difficult to see any physical signs of China's control of the territory.

Yes, Chinese military personnel are here in their barracks, but they don’t need to be used to keep the iron grip on this place. They have economics for that.

It's a far cry from the worries voiced 10 years ago when Britain gave up the territory with traditional pomp marred by atrocious weather.

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It poured and poured as Britain set off fireworks from great barges in Hong Kong's harbor. Prince Charles and then-Gov. Chris Patten struggled to keep up some semblance of respectability as the heavens rained down on their farewell parade. They sailed off into the night on Queen Elizabeth II’s yacht Britannia, signaling the end of British rule on this small island and peninsula.

The night after — when China celebrated — there wasn’t even a shower!

It was interesting to see how the vast majority of the city's residents acted when they saw which way the wind was blowing. Chinese flags were flown from virtually every building the day after the handover. Nowadays, you only see the communist flag on government buildings, offices and hotels.

There was, of course, a lot of natural pride at the time among the people here that Hong Kong had returned back to China, though there were concerns about what Beijing would do with its new reclaimed territory.

It was touted at the time as a union of "one country, two systems." What that meant was that Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy, and the people would rule themselves.

That has happened to a degree, but China has never allowed universal suffrage, although that was the ultimate aim in the basic law introduced at the time of the handover.

Instead, business leaders continue to hold strong influence on the territory and upon the ear of Beijing.

If you’re looking for physical changes in Hong Kong — a territory is made up of a series of nearly 260 small islands surrounding the Kowloon Peninsula — then the most significant is, of course, the skyline.

The airport's move to Lantau Island has allowed authorities to relax height restrictions of buildings on the Kowloon side of the harbor, which is opposite Hong Kong Island. The result is a dramatic increase in skyscrapers there.

Hong Kong Island also looks very different with buildings now spreading further into the harbor as land reclamation continues.

If you are looking for remnants of colonial Hong Kong, it can be difficult to find. But in Victoria Park — where the citizens of this territory play basketball, tennis and soccer as well as practice Tai Chi — the statue of Queen Victoria remains at the entrance to the park despite pressure to move it.

What hasn’t changed are the people of Hong Kong. Despite being in an enclave touted as Asia’s “World City” by local authorities keen to attract investment and tourists, the vast majority of Hong Kong's Cantonese residents go about their business as they always have — at great speed and the minimum of fuss.

Many Cantonese locals never learned the English language, even under British rule. That continues today. When I lived in the city, there was always a divide between the "gweilo" or "ghost men," as they called us, and the locals.

It wasn’t just a language divide but a cultural one.

My friends who live here now say that is largely gone since the handover. Some say it’s because the end of colonial rule helped heal wounds and gave the Chinese back their pride in a city that — despite being ruled for so long by the British — was built by them.

It's always said here that the only thing that the British have left behind for the people it ruled was the rule of law. Hong Kong continues to pride itself on the fact it has a strong legal system.

Its people also pride themselves on a can-do image. Most of them are first- or second-generation immigrants from China, and they know what hardship is.

And though July 1, 1997, marks the turn from British to Chinese rule, I believe the much more important date for the city happened a couple of weeks later when the Asia financial crisis hit these shores, wiped out investments and shattered the economy.

Hong Kong’s ability to bounce back from that crisis, as well as the SARS outbreak of 2003, shows the resilience and strength of its people.

As for the future, well if you’re an optimist, then Hong Kong and its fledgling democracy will help change China for the good. If you’re a pessimist then Hong Kong will — in the future — become a backwater as China opens itself up to the world and Shanghai, the city's natural competitor, attracts more of the money and talent in the future than Hong Kong.

I like to think that Hong Kong will survive and continue to prosper because it continues to adapt and survive despite its faults.

There is a new generation of migrants in the city now, not just from China but from across the world. To me, they are in a special place ... a place I call the New York of the East.

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