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China: A Letter From Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 13 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Cantonese waiters in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club, a favorite drinking haunt of veteran China-watchers, were recently issued with a new badge that symbolizes the ambivalent mood in this British colony.

The prismatic plastic card is inscribed with the letters FCC set against the British Union Jack. Viewed from another angle, however, the Union Jack fades, to be replaced by the five-star national flag of China.

"We adore it very much," one waiter told our correspondent.

Less than six months before London returns Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, residents of this small, hilly, granite island and its adjacent British-run territories on the Chinese mainland are of two minds about the future.

The gweilos (foreign ghosts) in the British colonial administration will haul down the Union Flag at midnight on June 30, but their departure after 150 years will be largely unmourned or treated with indifference by many of Hong Kong's 6.4 million mostly Cantonese people.

Many see British rule as an imperial anachronism, a legacy of centuries of humiliation of China by foreign powers -- Russians, French and Japanese, etc. Democratic activists particularly resent the fact that Britain, after denying Hong Kong the right to vote throughout its history, only belatedly moved to install representative government.

But can Hong Kong expect a better deal from Chinese bureaucrats? Sentiment divides between nationalists excited by unification with the motherland and realists, including Hong Kong's better-educated and more politically aware elite, who are fearful of rule by the world's last major communist power.

The realists, whom polls show form a clear majority, are nervous and fretful about the uncertain future. How, they ask, can a regime that ordered the 1989 Tiananmen Square army massacre of pro-democracy students be trusted to keep its pledge to safeguard Hong Kong's autonomy and freedom for 50 years?

A third group, the millionaire entrepreneurs who have made this freewheeling, laissez-faire society one of the most dynamic in the world, have a more hardheaded concern: Will China kill its prosperity?

London agreed to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty under the Sino-British agreement signed in 1984. At the time, the pact was almost universally hailed as a diplomatic triumph. But it has been shown to be deeply flawed on key issues. Most importantly, it did not spell out the basis for Hong Kong's constitutional development.

This has led to a bitter controversy over the drive by the last British governor, Chris Patten, to install a democratically-elected legislature in the final days of colonial rule -- an attempt rejected by Beijing which has vowed to dismantle British reforms -- and has chosen a 59-year-old shipping magnate, Tung Chee-Hwa, as head of Hong Kong's first post-colonial government. "No through train," is the slogan used by China, as a big clock in central Beijing ticks off the days to the formal handover.

Caught in the middle are the people of Hong Kong, who are wrongly seen as being apolitical. In opinion surveys, they have shown majority support for the creation of a more democratic society. Surveys show that personal liberty is uppermost in the minds of the thousands leaving the colony each month in search of new homes in places such as Canada. (Vancouver, a favorite destination, is now known as Hongcouver.)

Analysts say people have made the connection between economic well- being and the preservation of basic freedoms, such as independence of the judiciary, which underpin economic prosperity. In theory, these freedoms and their preservation lie at the heart of China's pledge to give the territory "a high degree of autonomy" and to allow it to develop a system distinctive from the socialist system that is supposed to prevail in China.

China's commitments to Hong Kong are enshrined in the Basic Law, a mini-constitution endorsed by China's leadership, under which Hong Kong will become a self-ruling Special Administrative Region of China. Among key pledges are a promise that Beijing may not interfere in Hong Kong's affairs; of freedom of speech, the press; and of assembly; and the right to join unions; and to strike and stage demonstrations.

Are these pledges worth the paper they are written on? An analysis in the respected "Asia Times" newspaper said: "These provisions sound too good to be true. And of course they are. It is highly unlikely that these pledges will retain any meaningful form." In particular, senior Chinese officials have started issuing caveats, especially on freedom of speech, which many see as the acid test of Beijing's intentions.

If freedom of speech and the press are a first casualty of Chinese rule, pro-democracy activists fear international confidence in Hong Kong as a trading and financial center will collapse. They also fear that other curbs on human rights will be only a matter of time.

This is the first in a series of reports from our correspondent in Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover of the British colony to China.