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Western Press Review: Hong Kong Return Seen As Opportunity, Anxiety Source

  • Don Hill

Prague, 30 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentary on the return to China tonight of Hong Kong attains a partial consensus: What China calls the "reversion" of Hong Kong is an opportunity for China to demonstrate, if not liberalism then at least wisdom. But the commentary diverges on whether optimism or skepticism should prevail.

THE WASHINGTON POST: Abuses of human rights in Hong Kong still a possibility

The newspaper, in an editorial yesterday, sided with the skeptics. The Post said: "Wei Jingsheng, China's leading dissident, recently was badly beaten in jail by fellow inmates, with the apparent encouragement of his jailers, according to his relatives. The courageous Wei, whose only crime is the peaceful advocacy of democracy, was already suffering from serious medical problems. China's leaders, who have kept him in prison for most of his adulthood, will not grant him access to adequate medical care.

"Why raise such an unpleasant subject on the historic occasion of Hong Kong's reversion from Britain to China? The transfer of authority, understandably will be a moment of pride for many Chinese, the righting of an imperialist wrong. Many residents of Hong Kong share a national satisfaction in seeing one of their own installed, for the first time, as Hong Kong's chief."

The editorial said: "But many in Hong Kong also feel some ambivalence about the fact that the new chief, Tung Chee-hwa, was hand-picked in Beijing. (The dissident) Wei has long understood that international pressure can influence China's behavior. (The U.S.) Clinton administration and its allies should do everything they can to ensure that China does not feel emboldened to mistreat Hong Kong's 6 million citizens with the same impunity."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Handover brings anxiety, opportunity for Hong Kong

In an editorial today the British newspaper takes a balanced approach. It says: "For China, tonight's handover of Hong Kong is being publicly presented as a triumphant vindication of national pride. For Britain, it is seen rather as a belated and somewhat sobering reminder of lost imperial glory. For many of the people of Hong Kong, it is a moment of anxiety about what the future holds for them as they switch from a colonial to a communist ruler. Yet for each it should be seen as something more (because) it also represents an extraordinary opportunity."

The Financial Times said: "Beijing must understand that transparent government and respect for the rule of law in Hong Kong are essential to maintaining (Hong Kong's) prosperous link (with the rest of the world.)"

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Democratic prospects look poor

The Los Angeles Times is the leading newspaper in the western U.S. state of California, with one of the world's largest Chinese communities outside of China. The newspaper editorialized yesterday that the prospects for Hong Kong under communist Chinese rule look poor. The newspaper said: "How will Hong Kong fare under Beijing? Despite promises of respect for existing practices, early indications are not positive. (The free-market enclave) has flourished economically under British rule, thanks in no small part to the enormous entrepreneurial talents of its people. Now Hong Kong will have a new master, one that has consistently guarded its monopoly on power and shown intolerance toward dissenters. Hong Kongers will have to adjust to a new way of life. But no less, Beijing will have to adjust to a new way to rule or risk the collapse of one of Asia's great success stories."

TIMES OF LONDON: Handover will be barometer for China1s modernizing prospect

The newspaper says today in an editorial: "With the ending of British rule, the most exuberantly successful free-market city in the world reverts to the sovereignty of one of the last remaining countries under communist control. For Britain and for Hong Kong, the ceremonies, fireworks and street parties are inevitably tinged with a certain anxiety.'

The newspaper says: "China is itself booming, but distrusts many aspects of this system; it makes no bones of silencing dissenting voices and Beijing continues to insist that China's burgeoning economy is based not on capitalism but socialism, albeit 'with Chinese characteristics.'

It concludes: "If Hong Kong becomes the undisputed international financial hub of the world's fastest-growing region, this can only accelerate the modernization of China. It will do so only if its institutions, the bulwarks against corruption and inefficiency, are solidly protected; financial markets flourish best in a climate of freedom. This has been Britain's contribution to Hong Kong; China's readiness to build on it will be, to the watching world, a barometer of the prospects for China itself."

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Albright's itinerary captures American ambivalence

The newspaper says in an editorial that ambivalence over the Hong Kong change is supported by events. The editorial says: "(U.S. Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright's datebook nicely captures America's ambivalence about the return of Hong Kong to China. (She) will attend the transfer ceremony, properly honoring China's historical claim to Hong Kong. She will skip the inaugural session of the new Hong Kong legislature, rightly snubbing an undemocratic body appointed by China's leaders."

The editorial concludes: "China's initial political moves in Hong Kong have been alarming. (Its) decision to garrison 4,000 Chinese troops in Hong Kong was a crude move to intimidate its citizens. Beijing, by habit and ideology, is quite capable of squashing freedom in Hong Kong. But as China steps onto the world stage, it has an opportunity in Hong Kong to present a different face. Few nations get such a chance to define themselves."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: British legacy spawns multiple interpretations

The newspaper publishes today two commentaries on the changeover. Historian Denis Judd describes the British handover as the last gasp of empire and as a British abandonment of responsibility. A Far Eastern Economic Review editorial republished in the Herald-Tribune bows to Britain's accomplishments as Hong Kong's ruler.

Judd writes: "The truth is that even if Britain wanted to hang on to Hong Kong, it lacks the muscle to do so." The historian says: "If in the process (of the handover), the relatively democratic freedoms of several million former British subjects are cynically abandoned, this will be nothing new in British imperial history, as the briefest scrutiny of the empire's abandonment will show -- from Burma to Nigeria, from Palestine to Zimbabwe."

But the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review spins this century's Hong Kong history in the other direction. It editorializes: "Whatever the wrongs of the past, the Hong Kong which Britain bequeaths to China is the most vibrant Chinese city in the world. Though not objective reading of Britain's colonial record can be blind to its sins, neither should it prevent us from acknowledging its accomplishments."