COVER

COUNTDOWN TO CHANGE

Hong Kong is bracing for a radical shift in regime

BRENDA DALGLISH May 10 1993
COVER

COUNTDOWN TO CHANGE

Hong Kong is bracing for a radical shift in regime

BRENDA DALGLISH May 10 1993

COUNTDOWN TO CHANGE

Hong Kong is bracing for a radical shift in regime

One of the rumors making the rounds in Hong Kong three years ago was that it was impossible to book an airline seat out of the city for the summer of 1997 because they had all been reserved by people who feared the worst after Britain hands the territory back to China on July 1 of that year. But now, with just over four years to go, the mood among some in Hong Kong has turned positively euphoric. “The feeling used to be that those people in the green uniforms would come marching over the hill,” said Marlene Lee, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and part owner of a public relations firm. “Now, the feeling is, ‘Hey, anything can happen after 1997. Let’s get down and make lots of money.’ ” Lee, who was bom and raised in Dauphin, Man., already has plans for July 1,1997. She has reserved a downtown hotel room—for the cleverly chosen figure of $1,997 H.K. ($330)—to watch the celebrations that are to take place in the harbor when Britain hands the keys to the city, and everything else, to China.

The image of Hong Kong’s gung-ho capitalists gathering to cheer

the arrival of Beijing’s Communist government seems like an absurd contradiction. But in Hong Kong, the business community’s current optimism springs from a seductive combination of the huge profits that they are making now on recent investments in China and from the new environment of hyper-capitalism emerging at almost every level of Chinese society, from leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing to the entrepreneurs doing on-the-spot bicycle repairs along the streets of Guangzhou.

Yet, at the same time, most of Hong Kong’s 5.8 million citizens, especially those who have not secured second passports that will ensure that they have another country to flee to in the event that life gets difficult after 1997, admit that they are deeply worried about the pending political changeover. In one extreme expression of that anxiety, a small factory owner hanged himself in March, leaving a note saying that he did not have the courage to face 1997. That combination of euphoria and anxiety is merely an escalation of a chronic condition: a result of the fact that Hong Kong’s fate lies at the feet of the giant across the border. “Hong Kong constantiy lives on the brink of extinction,” said Charles Kao, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ‘That’s why it always behaves as if there is no tomorrow.” Many Hong Kong residents say that they have little faith in either the incoming Chinese government or the outgoing British. The Chinese government’s heavy-handed, repressive policies were the reason that many of them originally fled to the territory from China over the last 40 years. And although the British have run Hong Kong efficiently, they also kept many of the best jobs for themselves, routinely quashing attempts by the overwhelming majority of Chinese to gain a say in government.

Even those people wary enough of China to emigrate from the colony, distrust Britain’s intentions equally. “Why is Britain suddenly promoting democracy now, after all these years?” asked Silvia Kwan, a teacher who immigrated to Canada last year and who is now studying business at the University of Toronto. She added: “I think they’re setting a time bomb to go off in Hong Kong after China takes over. They don’t want to see China succeed.”

As a result of that underlying mistrust, British Gov. Christopher Patten con fronted growing opposition to proposals that he made last October to expand slightly the degree of democracy that China and Britain had agreed to in the Joint Declaration of 1984. The ba sic principle of the document is known as the "one country, two systems ap proach." That means that Hong Kong will be able to keep a high degree of au tonomy and to continue with the same political, economic, legal and social sys

tems for the next 50 years. Under that agreement, only one-third of the Legislative Council will be directly elected. Patten is trying to extend the vote to more people. Under his plan, 2.7 million people would be allowed to vote, compared to 110,000 currently, but that is still less than half of Hong Kong’s 5.8 million population.

Opposition to Patten’s proposal came not just from the Chinese government in Beijing, as might be expected, but also from the powerful Hong Kong business community, which is now closely connected to China through thousands of deals. A Bank of Montreal report on Patten’s pro-

posal declared: “Hong Kong has operated efficiently for 150 years with its current system and has thrived. Increased democracy brings with it inefficiencies, higher costs and a damper to the entrepreneurial spirit” Opposition gradually emerged even among some Hong Kong residents, who were alarmed by the hostile language and threats that China began to hurl at Patten in March. One Chinese official called Patten a “criminal who would be remembered for 1,000 years,” and another compared him to a “prostitute selling her body of jade.” The rhetoric cooled last month, however, when Chinese officials said that they did not want the dispute with Patten to slow down construction of Hong Kong’s massive $26-billion airport project. To Hong Kong’s great relief, China and Britain agreed to discuss Patten’s proposals and the two sides held their initial meetings last month. But when the final meetings take place later this summer, Britain’s prime argument in favor of expanded democracy will likely be that it is essential for Hong Kong to preserve the environment that has, so far, ensured its role as a key international business centre serving China’s needs. Unfortunately, the merit of that point is being weakened by the fact that Hong Kong’s business community is sending the opposite message. In fact, many businessmen cite the example of the differences between China and the former Soviet Union. China has put economic reforms ahead of political reforms and, as a result, some people’s living standards are dramatically improving. The Soviet Union, however, introduced political reforms before getting its economy on track, and its people are now suffering. “China is not ready for democracy yet,” said William Wong, a Hong Kong-born Canadian who employs 2,000 young women at a modern garment factory in Guangdong, China. “The country is too big and the people are too poor. To have a good democracy, people must be educated.” According to that line of thought, the free-market economy will lead eventually to a

more democratic political system. But until then, the business community says that China will not allow Hong Kong’s democratic reforms to get too far ahead of its own.

Businessmen in Hong Kong complain that the West puts too much emphasis on human rights when dealing with economic issues. They cite as an example the current U.S. debate over whether China should continue to receive most-favored-nation trading status. Said David Li, chief executive of the Bank of East Asia and an appointed member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council: “I’m not condoning Tiananmen Square, but what the Chinese consider a domestic issue, the international people consider an abuse of human rights.” He added, “I’m not saying who is right, but I think that all governments make mistakes and as long as they recognize them as mistakes of the past, others shouldn’t go back and keep hitting the government with them again and again.”

Those on the other side of the debate claim that that viewpoint has contributed to some of history’s greatest tragedies. “Businessmen follow profit, not people,” said James McGregor, a lawyer, elected member of the Legislative Council and a strong supporter of Patten. “They’ll go for the system that gives them the least trouble. It’s the same argument that the Jews faced in Nazi Germany before the Second World War.”

Michael Sze, a senior civil servant who, in his role as secretary for constitutional affairs, is Patten’s chief adviser on democratic reforms, dismisses the business community’s arguments against Patten. Said Sze: “These are the people who have more than one passport to spare. What about the millions who can’t leave?” Britain, he says, carries a heavy responsibility for Hong Kong’s fate. ‘What happens if the idea of ‘one country, two systems’ doesn’t work?” Sze asked. “Britain will have signed over six million people to a highly repressive regime.”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong residents cling to the hope that the common goal they share with the Chinese—making money—will overcome all other differences. For now, both Communists and capitalists are revelling in that.

BRENDA DALGLISH in Hong Kong