1984 – Big Brothers

I can’t remember when I first read George Orwell’s 1984.  First published back in 1949, it is a horribly depressing story, set in a dystopian future, a totalitarian society characterised by mass surveillance, thought police, and the rule of Big Brother.  Orwell imagined that the effects of a yet another world war, civil war and aborted revolutions had led to a dictatorial government ruling Oceania, one of the three ‘super-states’ which now comprise the world.  Winston Smith is a low-level employee of the state, who spends his time rewriting history to suit the changing needs of Oceania.  If you’ve read it, you’ll remember Smith’s abortive attempt to be a rebel, his affair with Julia, his entrapment by the thought police, his re-education, and his return to life under Big Brother (this last at the cost of betraying his lover).

It’s the benefit of hindsight that leads me to wonder why Orwell had chosen 1984 for his novel.  Did he really believe that things would change that quickly?  The environment has certainly changed since he wrote, and surveillance, political correctness and government controls have been steadily increasing.  Despite this, we have a little further to travel before we find ourselves in a world like Oceania.  It would be reassuring if we could convince ourselves his imagined world still seems remarkably unlikely:  sadly, we can’t, and the slow drift to totalitarian regimes doesn’t seem to be waning.

Not predicted, but 1984 saw one change take place that had enormous consequences for democracy, although it wasn’t so obvious at the time.  This concerned Hong Kong.  For a long time, Hong Kong had been an unremarkable island, at the mouth of the Pearl River in southern China, with what is now modern Kowloon a short distance away on the mainland coast.  From what little we know, it was a sparsely populated base for fishing, and possibly some farming.  According to Wikipedia, that invaluable first stop for information, the island came under China’s direct control as the consolidation of the country took place under the Qin Dynasty, somewhere around 200 BC.  It was of little interest until the Mongols invaded in the 13th Century.  Many Chinese were pushed south, and the Southern Song court was in Kowloon for a while. Then the Portuguese turned up, and in the early 16th Century they established a trading post in Hong Kong’s waters, following this up by acquiring a permanent lease of Macau in 1557.  This was the start of Hong Kong’s role as an entrepôt, even during that strange period in the Sixteenth Century when the emperor decided to stop all trade, immediately after ending the amazing worldwide voyages of Admiral He.

In the 18th Century, Qing authorities introduced the Canton System, focussing trade between China and other countries on the port of Guangzhou (Canton).  While Canto was the key, various other locations were used, and Hong Kong was one among many stopping off points for Russian, Portuguese and eventually many other trading nations to barter for tea, silk, and porcelain.  There was a problem, however, one we would call a ‘trade imbalance’ today:  visitors wanted Chinese goods, but the Chinese were not excited by western offerings.  That changed with opium.  Soon, it was silk, tea and porcelain one way, and silver, gold and especially opium from India the other.   Addiction quickly ensured dependency, and in the face of an emerging catastrophe Qin officials worked hard, pursuing several attempts to stamp out the opium trade, to the point that by 1839, a desperate Chinese government tried destroying all the opium stocks in the country and was about to end overseas trade altogether.

As they had shown before in India, the British were quick to bring military support to ensure the continuation of profitable business, and that year the First Opium War erupted between the England and China.  Confronted by British warships, the Qing government surrendered.  The fateful decision was made to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain, establishing it as a major trade port.  A Convention agreeing to hand Hong Kong over was signed in January 1841, but both sides failed to ratify the agreement.  Occasional hostilities continued, ended by a formal handover of Hong Kong to Britain in 1842, under the Treaty of Nanking.  Of course, even this wasn’t the end of trouble, as dissatisfaction and more armed confrontations led to a Second Opium War.  The Qing lost this war, too, and so, with British and French forces entering the Forbidden City, a second agreement, the Convention of Peking, was signed, with the Chinese adding Kowloon and Stonecutters Island to the British territory.  Trade grew rapidly, and finally, in 1898 the British signed a 99-year lease for the New Territories (Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories were now consolidated as one colony).

For a long time, Hong Kong was distinguished by rapid economic growth and major investment.  The only blip came in 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Army seized the island, continuing in control there until 1945, when the British took it back.  Although the territory’s manufacturing competitiveness declined as the costs of labour and property grew, Hong Kong shifted over to focussing on a very profitable service-based economy.  That left one problem, the colony was facing an approaching and uncertain future as the end of the New Territories lease was getting close.  The UK’s Governor in Hong Kong raised the issue of Hong Kong’s longer-term status in meetings with Deng Xiaoping in 1979, and continuing negotiations led to the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1979.  In the auspicious year of 1984, the British agreed to transfer the colony in 1997, while China agreed it would guarantee Hong Kong’s economic and political systems for the 50 years following the transfer.  The transfer of Hong Kong to China as a ‘Special Administrative Region’ took place on 1 July 1997.

It wasn’t an easy start.  Within a few weeks of the handover, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis reverberated through the island, and the government had to draw on a substantial part of its foreign currency reserves.  As if to add insult to injury, this was followed by the first of a series of Avian Flu outbreaks (a second in 2001 was equally serious), and these were followed in 2003 by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic.  SARS was to prove particularly devastating, with the region suffering its most serious economic downturn to date.  Was fate telling the Hong Kong people that the handover was a mistake?

Somehow, Hong Kong overcame all these challenges.  Even now it has maintained its standing as a major capitalist service economy centre, characterised by low taxation and free trade, with its currency the eighth most traded in the world.  It is home to the third highest number of billionaires anywhere in the world, the second-highest number of billionaires of any city in Asia, and the largest concentration of ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) of any city in the world.  While such a concentration of wealth is extraordinary, Hong Kong is also a city characterised by extreme poverty.  It is two worlds.  Starving citizens on the streets, hardly surviving while surrounded by the largest number of skyscrapers of any city in the world, and a public transport network carrying more than 90% of its people.  Hong Kong is ranked 4th in the Global Financial Centres Index.  A place of paradoxes.

What would George Orwell have to say about all this?  Clearly, extreme poverty alongside enormous wealth would not surprise him.  However, it would be the politics that would draw his attention.  The 1979 Declaration had included the provision that China would guarantee Hong Kong’s’ economic and political systems.  Economic system, maybe.  Political system, certainly not.  The deal with the UK was the result of the British insisting on democracy in Hong Kong, while the Chinese central government followed what it described as the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.  The political situation went downhill, quickly.  It began with the reversal of several democratic reforms enacted at the last colonial era Legislative Council meetings.  Several other provisions were soon flouted, and dozens of protesters were arrested and charged.  In particular, the central government’s decision to introduce nominee ‘pre-screening’ before the elections for the Special Administrative Region’s Chief Executive set off a series of protests in 2014, which became known as the Umbrella Revolution.  Tens of thousands took part in a 79-day occupation of the city demanding more transparent election.  An Umbrella Revolution?  It came from the use of umbrellas as a means of passive resistance to the Hong Kong Police, who were using pepper spray to disperse the crowds.

Two years later, there were complaints over discrepancies in the electoral registry and, even worse, the disqualification of elected legislators after the 2016 Legislative Council elections.  Slowly but surely, Chinese national law was used to deal with events in Hong Kong, and it was adopted as the legal framework to manage activity at the West Kowloon high-speed railway station, the first time Chinese legislation was applied inside the territory.   In June 2019 another round of mass protests erupted, triggered by a proposal to pass an extradition bill, supposedly to extradite fugitives to Taiwan.  In practice, it would allow criminals to be moved to the mainland before trial.  Those protests have been the largest in Hong Kong history so far, with claims they’ve attracted more than three million Hong Kong residents.

Will the one country, two systems model survive to 2047.  Clearly not.  It’s effectively dismantled already.  For Hong Kong ‘Big Brother’ is the PRC, and the Peoples Republic is clear about its intent.  Perhaps a more accurate – and meaningful – term is ‘older brother’.  The older brother is the person with seniority in a group, and to be named as the older brother is a tacit acceptance that this person is to be respected, even if the relative age assignation is incorrect.  This takes me to another aspect of Hong Kong’s relationship with China, which is the result of the extraordinary rise to power and party dominance by Xi Jinping.

Xi Jinping’s early life reflects the shifting character of China.  He was born in Beijing in 1953, just four years after Mao had founded the People’s Republic of China.  His father was a senior official in the Communist party, responsible for propaganda, and appointed a Vice Chairperson of the National People’s Congress,  However, a little later he was purged from the Communist Party and sent to work in a factory in Henan Province.  Xi stayed in Beijing with his mother and two sisters.  Then, in 1966 Mao announced his ‘Cultural Revolution’.  Xi’s mother was forced to denounce his father, and three years later Xi was sent to work in a small town in Shaanxi Province.  Like many others, he spent several years away from Beijing with no access to formal education.  As the Cultural Revolution began to end, he successfully applied to study chemical engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, as a Worker-Peasant-Soldier student; his credentials had improved after his father had been reinstated.  He got in early:  the national higher education examination wasn’t re-established until 1977.

The rest of Xi’s story is one of steady rise through the ranks of the Communist Party.  Between 1979 and 1999 he held increasingly important positions in various provinces, culminating in his appointment as Governor of Fujian Province, where he remained until 2002.  Next, he was appointed Governor and Party Secretary of Zhejiang, one of the largest provinces in the country, one often described as the ‘backbone’ of the country’s economic development.  He remained there until 2007.  After a brief period as Party Secretary for Shanghai, Xi joined the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing, as First Secretary of the Central Secretariat.  A year later he was designated as the intended successor to President Hu Jintao, and a Vice-President of the PRC.  On his path to the top, Xi’s position was briefly threatened by rise of Bo Xilai, who was expected to join the Politburo in 2012, possibly as a challenge to Xi.  However, Bo fell from favour that year, probably at Xi’s instigation, and the threat disappeared.  In November 2012, Xi was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party, and in early 2013 replaced Hu as President.  He became ‘leadership core’ in 2016, and abolished term limits for the Presidency two years later.

A ‘big brother’?  Since becoming President Xi has relentlessly enforced party discipline and demanded unity.   He introduced an anti-corruption campaign, one which was much needed, but which also led to the downfall of several prominent incumbent and retired Communist Party officials, including members of the Politburo Standing Committee.  Internationally, he has addressed a number of issues, especially the country’s claims over the South China Sea, and more generally an ambitious ‘belt and road’ economic, trade and foreign policy program, seeking to build influence and control across the globe.  Is he a dictator?  Xi has increased censorship, introduced many mass surveillance systems across the country (as well as in Hong Kong, of course), together with other measures limiting human rights.  Equally concerning is the cult of personality that has been promoted; his operating without  term limits as President; and the publication of his observations and thoughts, an approach reminiscent of Mao and his famous ‘Little Red Book’, (the pocket-size edition of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung).  Orwell would have had no doubts.

Not every event in 1984 demonstrated increasing intolerance.  Over in India, Indira Ghandi was assassinated and was replaced by her milder and more accessible son Rajiv.  An older brother, it was his younger sibling, Sanjay, who was expected to carry his mother’s political role forward, but he died in a plane crash in 1980.  If the milder Rajiv stemmed some of the intransigence that increasingly characterised Indian politics, it was a short-lived variation.  After five years he was voted out of office, and then blown up by a fanatic in South India two years later, leaving his foreign-born wife to hold the Congress Party together.

However, when I think about 1984, about big brothers, older brothers, and politics, I can’t help the way my mind wanders.  This was the year the film Amadeus premiered, in September.  The film was an adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play of the same name.  It was a huge success and many regard it as one of the great films of all time:  it was nominated for no less than 53 major awards, and received 40, including eight Academy Awards (one of which was for Best Picture), four BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and a Directors Guild of America award.   In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked it 53rd on its ‘100 Years … 100 Movies’ list.

Perversely, I think of the film as reflecting on that Chinese role of the ‘elder brother’, the oldest member of the group, to be respected, and to advise and support others.  Mozart was the young, almost infantile genius, pouring out beautiful and eventually ground-breaking music, all brilliantly woven into Shaffer’s fiction.  Salieri was that older brother, admiring, hating, helping, and thwarting Mozart, who continued along, perverse, often obscene, and almost oblivious to whatever role Salieri was playing.  Murray Abraham is brilliant as Salieri, wanting to destroy Mozart while unable to ignore the precocious young man’s extra-ordinary talent.  Such are the complicated dynamics of brothers, older brothers, and even big brothers!

1984 proved a year George Orwell could never have imagined.  1984 was the year Jeopardy began with Alex Trebek.  1984 was the year McDonalds celebrated producing its 50 billionth hamburger.  The world George Orwell imagined has continued to develop, but we hadn’t got to his ‘1984’ just yet.  There’s increased control being exercised over our lives, alongside yet  more hamburgers and quizzes, our 20th Century version of the ‘opiate of the masses’.