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China: Hong Kong Fears Upcoming Handover

Hong Kong, 19 May 1994 (RFE/RL) -- A report from Hong Kong says that as many as two of every five people would seek to leave the territory if the situation becomes intolerable after the British colony reverts to Chinese sovereignty.

The survey reflects the nervousness felt by many of Hong Kong's 6.4 million people that Chinese authorities will curb civil liberties and interfere with the rule of law after the July 1 handover.

The survey by the Hong Kong Transition Project says that up to 10 percent of Hong Kong's non-expatriate population hold foreign passports and could leave at any time. Many of the Cantonese population have secured Australian or Canadian passports.

The survey says that others who might seek to leave would not be able to do so because of strict immigration rules in overseas countries. Even so, the report estimates that one in five of the population -- more than one million people -- have a realistic chance of emigrating.

Many could expect to take refuge with the large number of Hong Kong people living outside the territory, and of the existence in most western countries of family eunification programs.

London and Beijing signed a Joint Declaration in 1984 under which Hong Kong will be returned to China at midnight on June 30 after more than a century of British colonial rule.

Under the "one country, two systems" formula devised by the late Deng Xiaoping, Chinese authorities agreed that Hong Kong would be given a high degree of autonomy and permitted to keep its capitalist system for 50 years after the handover.

The Joint Declaration prompted predictions that there would be a mass exodus of people and money from this small and economically dynamic territory at the mouth of South China's Pearl River.

These warnings rose to a crescendo after China's crackdown on pro-democracy activists at Tiananmen Square in June, 1989. The use of troops against unarmed demonstrators traumatized the British colony, and foreign consulates were besieged by would-be emigrants.

Many Hong Kong citizens queued outside the Singapore consulate which offered an attractive immigration program.

A study by Hong Kong University predicted two years ago that 13 percent of the population would leave before the July 1 handover. However, the prediction has proved to be far too pessimistic.

The predicted mass exodus of Hong Kong Chinese has not materialized. At the peak in 1992, 66,200 people left. Most had applied to leave after the Tiananmen crackdown. But last year, the outflow of people fell to just over 40,000 people, one of the lowest figures for the 1990s.

These figures have to be treated with caution. The Hong Kong Government estimates that at least 12 percent of those who leave return -- with foreign passports in their pockets.

The lower-than-expected outflow of people reflects the fact that business optimism remains high in the colony. There is widespread confidence that Hong Kong will remain an important commercial and trading center. Property prices -- a key indicator of confidence -- remain astronomically high. For example, a small three bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood of Hong Kong sells for around $ 750 000.

Even so, although the outflow of people has been smaller than predicted, Hong Kong is suffering a "brain drain." The majority of those leaving have been people with money and skills. Employers report increased difficulties in filling professional jobs. Some have been forced to advertise abroad for professional staff.

What will happen after the handover? No one can be sure. But one thing is certain: the territory is much more Westernized than many people, both in Hong Kong and Beijing, will admit. Young Hong Kongers, in particular, have far more in common with young Europeans or North Americans than with their counterparts on the mainland.

This has prompted predictions that, after the five star national flag of China is raised on July 1, the problem may be not so much one of making the concept of "one country, two systems" work; but more of coping with the difficulty of "one country, two cultures."

If that, indeed, proves to be a stumbling block, then the exodus of people from Hong Kong may swell in the months and years ahead.