A high-rolling game

Democratic reforms challenge China

RAE CORELLI December 7 1992

A high-rolling game

Democratic reforms challenge China

RAE CORELLI December 7 1992

A high-rolling game


Democratic reforms challenge China



On the 29 square miles of Hong Kong island, and in the adjacent mainland territory of Kowloon, many of the fivemillion residents show a larger appetite for gambling than the high rollers of Las Vegas and Monte Carlo. During this year’s horse-racing season which ended last week, residents of the British crown colony wagered $8.6 billion—an impressive $1,720 for every man, woman and child. They dropped additional millions on illegal mahjong games.

Now there is a new challenge for Hong Kong’s odds makers: the unexpected rematch between China and Britain over how much democracy will be allowed to survive when Beijing takes control of the colony in 1997. Some islanders are betting that London wins the contest of wills.


Others are figuratively—and in many cases, literally—putting their money on Beijing.

But most have elected not to play. Said retired shop owner Jimmy Wong, who fled to Hong Kong from China 40 years ago: “We don’t believe we have any control over events. So we just wait and see what happens.”

A lot has already happened since Hong Kong’s march towards re-absorption by China was suddenly thrown into turmoil in October by newly arrived Gov. Christopher Patten, former chairman of Britain’s ruling Conservative party. In a speech to the colony’s governing 60-seat Legislative Council, Patten proposed that voters have a larger role in selecting the 1995 council which Beijing will inherit two years later. China responded angrily, accusing Britain of trying to renege on a hand-over agreement that the two countries signed in 1984, and of trying to undermine the post-1997, China-drafted Hong Kong Constitution.

Neither side appears ready to compromise. British Prime Minister John Major has endorsed Patten’s plan, and the governor has secured moral support from Canada, Australia and the United States. And last week, China’s hard-line Premier Li Peng flatly refused to rewrite either the treaty with London or the new constitution. Declared Li: “This is a mat-

ter of principle. The Chinese government will never compromise on matters of principle.” The prospect of being trapped in a tug of war between Britain and China has frightened some members of the Hong Kong community. Last month, the colony’s stock market began a twoday slide that left it 9.3 per cent below the value of the previous week. Foreign investors

were also reconsidering Hong Kong ventures. And last week, a government committee narrowly authorized financing for building a new multibillion-dollar airport, an action that caused further consternation in the colony. China has bluntly warned that it opposes the airport proposal and will not honor any contracts signed without its approval.

At the same time, published polls indicated that public support for Patten’s Oct. 7 proposals, solid in the beginning, was beginning to diminish. Many of Hong Kong’s business leaders, convinced that supporting Patten could hurt their business relationships with Beijing after 1997, have publicly cast their lot with China. In mid-November, the Business and Professionals Federation, a major business lobby, concluded that the governor’s proposals violated the spirit of the 1984 Joint Agreement

between London and Beijing, and asked him to withdraw them.

But Patten has insisted from the outset that his plan does not conflict with the post-1997 constitution, called the Basic Law, under which 20 of the 60 legislative council seats would be filled by direct elections. Under the 1984 treaty, the remaining seats would be filled, as they are now, by candidates simply appointed by various interest groups. But Patten wants a radically broader number of voters to have a say on how those appointments are determined. China has refused his invitation to make a counterproposal to his plan. And the governor, who has resisted demands for a referendum because, he argues, it would be divisive, has said that if Beijing does not make a counter-recommendation, he will ask the legislative council next March to approve his reform package.

Some Chinese leaders said that Patten’s

proposal contravened the 1984 Sino-British Joint Agreement. Others alleged that they violated a set of so-called secret letters earlier exchanged between London and Beijing. To buttress its argument, the Major government released those letters in October, but their publication left the British embarrassed. Analysts said that they demonstrated that the government of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had given in to China’s demand to limit democracy in Hong Kong after the turnover—despite London’s public pledges to protect the colony’s democracy.

In the face of Chinese hostility, some of Patten’s supporters have taken unusual steps to see that his proposal is adopted. Last week, Legislative Councillor Christine Loh won overwhelming support for a resolution strongly backing Patten’s proposed reforms. Declared


Loh: “We’ve seen Britain’s spinelessness towards China before. It’s right for us to be skeptical, because Britain’s record is not good.” Lawyer Martin Lee Churning, a council member and the leader of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, said that the current political battle arose because Britain had conceded too much to Beijing. He added: “Britain used to allow China to make unreasonable demands and the philosophy was ‘Don’t offend China.’ But I think the Brits got fed up with kowtowing and now I think they’ll stick with this program.”

Although Hong Kong’s Englishand Chinese-language newspapers carry front-page stories about democratic reform almost every day, the war of words surrounding it appears to have had little impact on the ordinary life of the colony. Despite its uncertain future, foreign consulates, including Canada’s, report no great increase in inquiries from prospective immigrants, whose numbers multiplied in earlier disputes over Hong Kong’s future. Property values are still rising. Patrons flock to race tracks. Restaurants and movie houses cater to capacity crowds. A huge, long-running exhibit of Western and Chinese paintings at the Hong Kong Convention Centre was packed last Sunday and vendors reported that everything from Salvador Dali etchings to John Lennon sketches were selling briskly. “Hong Kong people want a little democracy,” said shop owner Wong. But, he added: “We want to make money, too.”

Still, many of Hong Kong’s wealthier citizens have already prepared for the worst.

The majority of students attending the colony’s English Schools Foundation institutions, originally established to teach the children of British civil servants, are now Hong Kong Chinese. “Most of these children are what I call ‘returning Chinese,’ ” explained a primary school headmaster. “They went with their parents to Canada, Australia or the United States for a few years while their parents worked to obtain foreign passports. Now that their parents have that insurance, they have come back to live in Hong Kong. If things get bad, they will simply leave.”

But to Robert Chung Tingyiu, head of Hong Kong University’s Social Research Centre, the colony is a more complex society. Said Chung:

he said. “It won’t be the same China then.” And for many residents, the future generates excitement. Woo Chia-wei, president of Hong Kong’s new $ 1.8-billion University of Science and Technology, which opened in 1991, reports that many of the U.S.and Canadian-recruited faculty cited Hong Kong’s union with China as their reason for coming.

“It’s not that they are procommunist,” says Woo, a former president of San Francisco State University. “It’s that they see a great opportunity. They see that all Asia is improving, and China is coming along.” That optimism, he pointed out, is widely held. “I’m not worried,” said a Hong Kong policeman walking his beat in Shatin. “My job will stay the same. It might even get better, because the Chinese don’t just let criminals off the hook. There, punishment is certain. That will make my job easier.”

Change is not only a subject for speculation; some evolution has already occurred. Mandarin, China’s official language, formerly scorned on an island almost wholly Cantonese-speaking, is becoming popular among students and, increasingly, the public schools are offering courses in the language. Several of the colony’s most expensive and prestigious international schools now feature their Mandarin language programs as a selling point. Workers, especially civil servants, say they are beginning to contemplate the reality of working for new bosses.

Meanwhile, in a city long associated with international ^ intrigue, rumors still abound. 2 One is that China may try to § enforce its will by shutting off I the colony’s water supply. I Another is that Beijing will set up a shadow government in neighboring Shenzhen. A third is that Beijing may even send in the army before 1997. With so much uncertainty in the air, there are no bookies willing to fix the odds on the chances for success of democratic reform in Hong Kong—but that has not stopped the betting. And with over 30 per cent of Hong Kong’s thoroughbreds sick from a herpes virus, which forced an early end to the racing season, politics is fast becoming the only game in town.


“This is a city of political refugees from China. The young people are radicals, and they want democracy. The business class just wants stability—most can leave whenever they want to, so they want to be able to exploit Hong Kong’s economic position as long as possible. Then there are the ordinary Chinese people: many are bitter anti-Communists, but most of them

have an old Chinese attitude—they want consensus, harmony.”

In fact, there is a widespread belief among Hong Kong residents that China itself will change before 1997. “I think China is changing so rapidly that you won’t even recognize the place five years from now,” says a Chinese junior executive at Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd., the pre-eminent old hong, or trading company, which has interests in practically every sector of the economy. “The old guard that runs Beijing today will be gone by 1997,”