Hong Kong, 10 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- With less than four months to go before Britain returns Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, its 6.4 million people are still in the dark as to how far the Chinese communist party will go in asserting its control over the territory.
The Union Jack no longer flies in front of many buildings, the "Royal" has been removed from institutions such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and British civil servants are sailing home on ocean liners.
The question bothering Hong Kongers is: will the British be replaced by bureaucrats from the Chinese Communist party?
Tung Chee-hwa, the pro-China shipping tycoon chosen to head the first post-colonial government, denies he will be operating under the orders of communist party bureaucrats after the July 1 handover.
Referring to Beijing's policy towards the 150-year-old British colony, Tung said in an interview last week: "China will move forward without missing a beat. There will be no impact on Hong Kong."
He said his main objective is to ensure that Hong Kong will be able to retain its autonomy and capitalist system for 50 years after the handover, a promise made to the colony by the late Deng Xiaoping.
Can Tung's assurances be trusted? He has been criticized for backing Beijing's plan to replace the democratically-elected legislature (installed belatedly by Britain) and to amend laws protecting civil liberties. He was also faulted for an outburst against Democratic Party leader Martin Lee, a persistent critic of China's political record.
Commentators say it will be hard to keep the Chinese communist party out of Hong Kong's affairs. They point out that the party has been active in the colony for at least five decades, albeit clandestinely.
The extent of the communist presence is rarely discussed but it is evident in China-backed political parties, labor unions and newspapers. There are some six pro-Beijing schools in Hong Kong which, in addition to offering normal study, teach Chinese history and literature with a slant favorable to the Communist Party.
Hong Kong members of the communist party routinely refuse to acknowledge their membership. But for years local communists have participated in the People's Congress in Beijing, attending as delegates from China's southern Guandong Province. Local communists often make their sympathies felt. Every October 1, the anniversary of the 1949 Revolution, Hong Kong flutters with red flags, flying everywhere from the Bank of China to the offices of obscure trade unions.
Old-fashioned China-run department stores, selling peasant crafts and outdated women's fashions (the stock is dusty, the service slow but the prices low) are a reminder, too, of communist influence.
The center of Beijing's influence is the New China News Agency, next to the Happy Valley race track. Xinhua was founded in Hong Kong in 1949, the year the communists consolidated their control over the mainland. "Asia Times" columnist Stephen Vines says China chose a "news" organization for its outpost because any other form of organization would have provided an endorsement of the colonial status quo (China has never had a formal mission in Hong Kong.)
He says the British were under no illusions that Xinhua was something more than a news agency, but the security services chose not to close it down. They preferred to keep it under surveillance rather than force communist activities further underground.
Significantly, locally-recruited Chinese staff have always been denied high office in Xinhua. Hong Kong employees used to refer to themselves as "glass people," because the mainlanders always seemed to be looking through them when the time came for promotion.
During pro-China riots inspired by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Xinhua was accused of coordinating the protests against the colonial authorities. Later the local manager of Xinhua emerged as the unofficial chief representative of China, making formal announcements and attending functions in a quasi-diplomatic role.
More recently, Xinhua has become more involved in the business community, seeking to encourage Hong Kong's millionaire financiers and industrialists to invest in China's booming special economic zones.
Aside from Xinhua, the communist party has put down roots in many other areas in Hong Kong's life, say analysts. They range from the Hong Kong-Macau Working Committee, believed to be directly responsible to the central committee in Beijing, to the Federation of Trade Unions, which claims almost 200,000 members.
China has given notice of its plans to station People's Liberation Army troops in Hong Kong, while reports say some 50 cadres from northern China have been installed already in the border town of Shenzhen to help in the ideological work of controlling Hong Kong.
For his part, Stephen Vines predicts that the real inner core of the Chinese communist party will remain underground after the transfer of sovereignty. But he says: "It is equally safe to assume that talk of "one country, two systems", notwithstanding, China fully intends to maintain political control of Hong Kong."
Where does this leave the people of Hong Kong? Some take a pessimistic view. Gerald Segal, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, points out that Britain had no choice but to return Hong Kong since China controls its water, power and food supplies. But he says it is wrong that the people are being handed back against their will to a far more ruthless regime which rules a far poorer country. The return of Hong Kong, he says, is a "tragic story of a wealthy and dynamic population being forced to step back in time."