Cycles from the Past

CLAIRE: Dori Jones Yang was BusinessWeek’s Hong Kong bureau chief from 1982 to 1990, and recently penned a memoir of those years, When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening. When she contacted me out of the blue in early 2020, asking if I’d review the memoir, I assumed we’d have a passing professional relationship. Though neither of us could recollect an actual meeting, it turned out we had many mutual friends and had likely been in the same room more than once during the 1980s, when she’d been with BusinessWeek and I’d been working in public relations. Lovely to find a new old friend, and we’ve kept in regular touch ever since.

DORI: Hong Kong has a special place in my heart—whether it’s in panic mode or not. That’s where I began my journalistic career as a foreign correspondent, where I met and married my Chinese husband, where my daughter was born. Yet when I arrived, in 1982, and when I left, in 1990, Hong Kong people were scrambling to get out, fearful about their future. China has changed enormously since then, yet here we are again, with an even greater crisis in Hong Kong.

Dori Jones Yang, on the job. Clockwise from left: with the Bank of China lions in Hong Kong; on Tiananmen Square and one of her cover stories.

Dori Jones Yang, on the job. Clockwise from left: with the Bank of China lions in Hong Kong; on Tiananmen Square and one of her cover stories.

Shortly after I arrived as a young journalist for BusinessWeek in 1982, Margaret Thatcher flew to Beijing to begin her talks with Deng Xiaoping about the colony’s future. Local people went into panic mode, and those with means scrambled to buy condos in Portland or obtain passports from obscure Central American countries. The stock market plunged and real estate prices dropped. About 20,000 people a year left Hong Kong for good.

Once the Sino-British agreement over Hong Kong’s future was signed in 1984, things calmed down. Clever Hong Kong businessmen set up factories across the border in Guangdong, showing the way for China to become an export powerhouse. It was the little guys that led the way—tiny local companies that had teamed up with American importers to make toys and clothing and Christmas-tree ornaments across the border. Some emigrants returned, with foreign passports as security.

During those years, I met my husband, Paul Yang, a Chinese-American with no experience in trade, who decided he wanted to “ride the wave” of China’s fast growth. He nabbed a job with Exxon just as it began exploring for oil in the South China Sea and later switched to run a China trade and consulting firm in Hong Kong.

Dori and Paul in Guangzhou, 1985.

Dori and Paul in Guangzhou, 1985.

Things were great—until they weren’t. As a journalist, I covered the protests in Tiananmen Square—and the military crackdown in June 1989. That event caused an even bigger wave of panic in Hong Kong. More than 62,000 people fled from the colony in 1990—about 1% of the population. The outflow of people—and money—kept going throughout the early 1990s. Hundreds of thousands emigrated to cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne. The quality of Chinese food in those cities shot up.

Paul and I were among those who left in 1990, shocked and discouraged and dead-sure that the Deng era of reform and growth was over. We were wrong. Deng restarted the reforms in 1992 and set off the most amazing national economic growth in history over the next twenty years, raising living standards, eliminating poverty and spawning a crop of billionaires. Big players from Hong Kong thrived, developing huge shopping malls and hotels across China. Hong Kong itself boomed, with money flowing across the border into its stock market and real estate. Paul found a US company eager to sell refinery equipment to China and rode this wave from our new base, in Seattle.

Today, as Hong Kong rushes into another season of alarm and dread, it’s worth remembering these dramatic cycles from the past. Last year’s street protests and disruptions set off another surge of emigration: 50,000 left in the last two quarters of 2019. The national security law, imposed by Beijing on July 1, has justifiably raised fears, especially among those who have been most outspoken against China’s excesses.  Once again, emigration advisers are seeing a groundswell of queries about how to obtain a foreign passport.

On the streets of Hong Kong.

On the streets of Hong Kong.

It would be foolish to offer reassurance that everything will be okay in Hong Kong. Today’s fears are real and well-founded. But recent history gives us some perspective. Smart Hong Kong businesspeople have found opportunities during times of panic; that’s how Li Ka-shing rose from a plastic-flower maker to a real estate magnate, buying properties at a discount after the riots in 1967. Today, as in the past, many mainland Chinese are eager to move across the border, and some are buying properties sold by frightened people who are leaving. China’s government invested US$20 billion to build a sea bridge connecting Hong Kong to Macau, part of its Greater Bay Area development.  Hong Kong’s investment bankers are buzzing over the upcoming Ant Group share offering, possibly the biggest in history. Capitalism may continue to thrive, even as civil liberties are eroded.

Predictions about China’s future often prove wrong. That’s one lesson I’ve learned in my life. After this typhoon blows over, perhaps Hong Kong will prosper once again.