Behind condolences for Margaret Thatcher and the harbour strike – the seeking of pride in memory
To many Hongkongers, the death of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a piece of saddening news. Despite criticisms concerning her responsibility of letting Hong Kong be taken away by Communist China, Hongkongers’ view towards the Prime Minister who led their former sovereign state during the golden ages of the city is generally positive. This seems self-contradictory in terms of political ideology though, when a significant number of them are at the same time supporting the ongoing strike of habour workers against Hongkong International Terminals (HIT), in that for whom they have expressed condolences was famous (or notorious) for the extreme rightist ideology of neoliberalism, which is of course hostile to inefficient and anti-market practices like strikes.
Refraining from taking the tempting conclusion of apoliticality, or more precisely, political ambivalence of Hongkongers, I am more interested in finding the consistency between these two seemingly contradictory acts. A lack of understanding of political spectrum aside, how may the coexistence of appreciation a neoliberalist politician and strong sympathy towards a leftist worker movement be intellectually explained? A possible answer, which takes into account the reminiscence of colonial era arisen in recent years along with the localist movements, is that Hongkongers, facing various political and economic difficulties, have taken the recollection of our golden ages in the 1980s and 90s as a painkiller. The memory of our success in the golden ages, which made the identity of Hongkongers as a pride, has served as the underlying logic which bridges our expression of condolences on Thatcher’s death with the support given to the exploited habour workers.
It is not difficult to see the relation between our appreciation of Thatcher and the memory of success: Thatcher was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1990, a period which significantly overlapped with the most prosperous era of the country’s crown colony in East Asia. Despite the great disappointment and fear triggered by the signing of the Joint Declaration, the prosperity of Hong Kong and the corresponding international status of the city were largely unaffected during the 1980s and 90s. Moreover, this success has partly, if not mainly, been explained in a neoliberalist discourse that it was the free market of Hong Kong and the hardworking of its citizens which brought the prosperity. Hongkongers’ condolences for Thatcher are in this sense having double meanings: both praising a political leader of the sovereign state at the time Hong Kong was most successful and recollecting the disappearing fruits of neoliberalist “economic rationality”.
The relation between the sympathy towards the harbour strike and the past success is less obvious, but it does not mean that no clue can be found. Particularly, a repeating and impressing complaint made by the habour workers is that their present wage level is even lower than that in 1997. Their taking 1997 as the baseline of comparison is significant, because the year of 1997 also has double meanings to Hongkongers – the change of sovereign state and the beginning of economic recession, both to a large extent marking the end of the city’s decades of huge success. Although the economy has already recovered, our economic reliance on the communist regime is getting much heavier. The threat of the death of autonomy and cultural assimilation has kept reminding us the desperate situations we are now facing. Comparing the present with 1997 is, in this sense, possibly a way to relieve and encourage ourselves by restating the fact that we had enjoyed the pride of success and, accordingly, wishing that with Hongkongers’ efforts, the city can revive.
A separate but related interpretation of the support given to harbour worker is that from the perspective of some citizens, neoliberalism, the previous drive of the economic success, has become a source of deteriorating living standard. Given the deep-rooted belief in self-sufficiency and economic rationality, it is not proper to say that Hongkongers have already lost confidence to free market. But they would agree that something has gone wrong, and it is this wrong which partly explains the losing of pride as being a Hongkonger. If the present wage level of a significant group of people is even lower than that in 1997, it is difficult to persuade ourselves that our city is having a genuine progress in economic development comparable to the flourishing in the past few decades. This may probably be the reason why we are especially sympathetic to those harbour workers on strike when we know that their wage level has dropped since 1997 – it reminds us of our prosperity and collective success as Hongkongers in the past and the contrasting present situation.
The discovery of the above internal logic of the seemingly self-contradictory acts of Hongkongers is by no means encouraging; it just reveals and further evidences our worry and pain as to the gradual loss of what we possessed since the transfer of sovereignty. There is more likely a casual linkage than a mere coincidence between the political event and our loss experienced in the past one and a half decade. Hongkongers may really be ambivalent between rightist and leftist political ideologies, but even if they are, this is actually not uncommon even for peoples in democratic regimes. After all, rather than being satisfied with such a conclusion, those who regard Hong Kong as the homeland should be able to recognize the culprit who has repeatedly posed threats to our city and always intended to eliminate our pride as being Hongkongers.