WORLD

A TROUBLED CITY

Tension rises in Hong Kong as its 1997 handover to China looms

MICHAEL STEINBERGER February 5 1996
WORLD

A TROUBLED CITY

Tension rises in Hong Kong as its 1997 handover to China looms

MICHAEL STEINBERGER February 5 1996

A TROUBLED CITY

WORLD

Tension rises in Hong Kong as its 1997 handover to China looms

Twelve years after Lawrence Wong decided that he would rather leave Hong Kong than live under Chinese rule, he is finally ready to make the move. Convinced that Britain’s last major colony will change for the worse after China resumes sovereignty on July 1,1997, the 36-year-old accountant intends to apply for a Canadian immigrant visa this spring. He and his wife Kenita feel their two young children will face a bleak future if they grow up in Hong Kong.

“I don’t think they will have the same opportunities that I had for the last 30 years,” the Hong Kong native says. “The next generation will suffer a lot.” Confident that he can sell his apartment for a profit, Wong expects to have saved enough money to relocate his family to Toronto by next January.

The Wongs will be joining the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who have already left for Canada, Australia, the United States and other countries. Thousands more may be on the way this year. Most feel little nostalgia for the departing British, but fear that China, in its haste to reclaim the once-barren rock it was forced to surrender in 1842, will bury all that was benevolent about the colonial system. The British presence is already fading. The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club—centre of much of the social life of the gambling-mad colony—has decided it will no longer be “Royal” after 1996. Cathay Pacific Airways, the leading carrier, has

painted over the Union Jack on the tails of its planes. And the Hong Kong Club, long a favorite watering hole of the British establishment, has lost fashion to the elegant China Club, where conversation is more likely to turn on the latest power struggle across the border than the most recent scandal to hit Buckingham Palace.

But the changes are more than cosmetic. The balance of power has already shifted as the transition gathers steam. Hong Kong politicians now take their cues from Beijing, not London. The British colonial administration makes no major policy decisions without first consulting the Chinese. Soon, it could find itself sidelined by the 150-member preparatory committee sworn in by Beijing last week to help assemble the colony’s

post-1997 government. With just a year and a half to go, Hong Kong is a community plagued by uncertainty and doubt. After bridging East and West so successfully for so many years, it must now become a Chinese'city and embrace a motherland that shares its ancient culture but little of its modern tradition.

Optimism about that process is in short supply at the moment A January opinion poll found that 43 per cent of Hong Kongers aged 15 to 24 would rather emigrate than stay beyond 1997. Their parents are no more sanguine: a poll last summer revealed that more than half of residents oppose reunification with China. If Beijing failed to get the

message, it was driven home unmistakably by last September’s Legislative Council elections. Pro-democracy candidates swept 17 of the 20 directly elected seats in the de facto parliament and dealt China a humiliating setback in its effort to win local hearts and minds. The outcome was no surprise to liberal legislator Christine Loh. “Hong Kong people are unhappy,” she says. “They think they are being manipulated into something China wants, not what Hong Kong wants.”

Recent events have only intensified their concerns. Just moments after the polls opened on Sept. 17, China issued a statement reminding voters that the Legislative Council would be dismantled in 1997 in retaliation for election reforms initiated three years ago by Hong Kong’s governor, Chris Patten. Several weeks later, the preliminary working committee (PWC), appointed by Beijing in 1993 and now replaced by the preparatory

committee, ruled that key provisions of Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights were incompatible with the Basic Law, the colony’s post-1997 constitution, and should be overturned. Pro-Beijing party leader Tsang Yoksing, a school principal, insists that was the mild approach. “Originally, there were suggestions that the Bill of Rights should be scrapped altogether.”

PWC member Sir S. Y.

Chung, a former adviser to the colonial administration, then disclosed that China planned to establish a shadow government for Hong Kong, including a separate legislature, before 1997. Beijing’s decision to exclude leading pro-democracy legislators, such as

Loh and outspoken lawyer Martin Lee, from the preparatory committee has only added to the perception that Hong Kong public opinion counts for little with China. Beijing also passed over Dorothy Liu, a longtime pro-China politician who has grown increasingly disillusioned with the way the mainland regime has behaved during the transition. “They only want people who applaud and agree with everything they say,” she says. “That’s their idea of stability and co-operation.”

The December conviction and sentencing in Beijing of leading Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng was the final straw for many residents. Several thousand

people gathered on consecutive weekends outside Xinhua News Agency, which acts as China’s embassy in Hong Kong, to protest Wei’s imprisonment It was perhaps the most emotional outpouring in the colony since 1989, when more than one million Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. Many local commentators point to the fragility of the regime led by President Jiang Zemin, who is still trying to shore up his position as the anointed successor to ailing patriarch Deng Xiaoping. “The golden rule is to take the hardest-possible line to show the party cadres that the leadership is strong,” says democrat Lee. “The top priority is to be able to control Hong Kong. That explains everything they have been doing.”

Beijing’s menacing noises have fuelled speculation that as many as 100,000 people may leave the six-million-strong colony in 1996. The Canadian commission in Hong Kong last year saw a 25-percent increase in immigrant-visa applications over 1994, although the numbers have not reached the high point of the early 1990s when memories of Tiananmen were fresh. Lawyer Hugh Gillespie, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, says he always expected a pre-1997 pickup—“the lastminute club,” as he calls them—but he sees political factors as well. “The best we can say is that things have not improved,” says Gillespie. ‘There is not enough certainty about how China will govern Hong Kong after 1997 to stop people from applying.” Some 60,000 Hong Kongers continue to leave for other countries every year, including 30,000 to 40,000 for Canada. The Canadian commission also estimates there are 80,000 to 100,000 Canadian passport holders living in Hong Kong, any of whom could fly to Canada at the drop of an edict.

Many of them are Hong Kong natives who have gone back to take advantage of better economic opportunities. But with Hong Kong’s economy in a prolonged slump, people have fewer reasons to return these days. Although the stock market has rebounded, the colony’s economic growth last year slipped to five per cent for the first time since 1991. Unemployment, though still low by Western standards, more than doubled to reach 3.6 per cent. And in a city whose residents were born to shop, retailers experienced their worst year in over two decades. “When you combine political uncertainty with economic uncertainty, you are just begging people to leave,” says academic Michael DeGolyer, head of the Hong Kong Transition Project.

Even Patten concedes that there is little London can do to reassure people about the future. It was always assumed that the last British governor would be marginalized as the transition progressed, but Patten has been entirely eclipsed in recent months. This is largely the result of Beijing’s campaign to isolate him as punishment for his constitutional reforms. Mainland officials refuse to meet with him and are instructed to avoid social engagements to which he is also invited. One Chinese spokesman warned Patten recently that he would not be allowed to attend the handover ceremony if he continued to challenge China.

The governor has also been undermined by what appears to be a change in British policy on Hong

Kong. It has become clear in recent months that London is no longer inclined to pursue policies that might lead to confrontation with the Chinese. Britain caved in on several key points last summer in reaching a widely criticized deal with China over Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind failed even to raise the question of the Legislative Council’s future during talks with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, in October. And London’s long-standing refusal to give the colony’s 3.2 million British passport holders the right of abode in Britain has only reinforced Hong Kong’s disillusionment. “People have given up on Britain,” says legislator Emily

MILESTONES

The relationship between China and Britain over Hong Kong has been testy ever since the Opium Wars of the mid1800s. A checklist of key dates in Hong Kong’s past and future:

1842: The Treaty of Nanking cedes Hong Kong Island to Britain after the First Opium War. The Kowloon peninsula is added in 1860.

1898: China grants Britain the outlying New Territories on a 99-year lease.

1984: Britain and China sign a Joint Declaration promising Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” after its return to China on July 1,1997.

1997: The British flag comes down at midnight on June 30 and the Chinese one goes up. Under the Joint Declaration, China continues to consult Britain on Hong Kong transitional issues for three years.

2047: End of the Joint Declaration’s 50-year period for capitalist Hong Kong to retain separate policies from the mainland, following patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” formula.

Any sign that Hong Kong is turning into a hotbed of subversion will meet a stern response

Lau. ‘They do not feel any kinship with Britain because Britain didn’t want us. They feel resentful.”

The British influence over events in Hong Kong will continue to decline as the preparatory committee, dominated by pro-Beijing figures and China-trading business tycoons, begins its work. One of the committee’s main tasks will be to name the 400-member selection committee that will, in turn, appoint the first chief executive of the post-1997 government. The Chinese have given no hint about who is in the running,

but months of rumor have produced a shortlist of three likely contenders: Hong Kong’s top civil servant, Chief Secretary Anson Chan, lawyer and publisher Lo Tak-shing, and shipping magnate Tung Chee-hua.

The appointment of Chan, 56, would straddle the incoming and outgoing administrations and allow for a seamless transition, but her close association with Patten may prove

to be an insurmountable hurdle. A Lo nomination would signal a far less tolerant attitude towards Hong Kong. The 61-year-old scion of one of Hong Kong’s oldest and wealthiest families has already proved his loyalty to Beijing—he is a central figure in the attack on the Bill of Rights—and would be much more concerned with maintaining stability than earning the affection of his constituents.

Tung, 58, would represent something of a compromise between Chan and Lo—and is fast emerging as the front-runner. He was recently endorsed by Henry Fok, a vice-chairman of the preparatory committee and a close adviser to Beijing. Billionaire Ii Ka-shing, a committee member (and a major investor in Canada), lifted his objection to having a businessman at the helm of Hong Kong’s post-1997 administration; this was viewed as a tacit endorsement of Tung, who heads Orient Overseas

(International) Ltd. A Tung appointment would likely meet with British approval since he is a member of the Executive Council, Patten’s cabinet William Overholt a managing director of Bankers Trust in Hong Kong and author of The Rise of China, is confident that the Chinese

will take into account the views of the colony’s residents. “There is no question they are looking for the middle ground,” he says. “The way they are handling it says that they do care about the reaction.”

Legislator Loh disagrees. “They no longer see it as necessary to get public support,” she says. “They think the support of the business community is sufficient.” She and others fear that the Chinese regime is now determined to bring Hong Kong to heel no matter what the cost. They point to Beijing’s heavyhanded but effective effort to intimidate the

colony’s press corps. Many journalists say self-censorship is already prevalent among Chinese-language dailies.

Pro-mainlander Lo, a member of the preparatory committee, says that the Bill of Rights controversy is only the start of an effort by China to overturn Hong Kong laws it feels might make it difficult to maintain stability. “There are many other pieces of legislation

many which we anticipate will be hot topics during the next two years,” he says. Lo also warns against any bid by Hong Kong residents to influence the mainland’s politics: “I would beg them to please don’t do this kind of rubbish. You are endangering everyone else.”

The challenge for Hong Kong is in knowing where the political boundaries lie. Though the Sino-British agreement of 1984 promised the colony “a high degree of autonomy,” it will nevertheless become a part of China. As the Chinese authorities struggle to keep control over a country in the throes of an economic revolution, any sign that Hong Kong is turning into a hotbed of subversion will surely meet with a stern response. Making money will be applauded; making trouble for Beijing will invite unpleasant consequences. The colony has already delivered a resounding vote

of nonconfidence in its future under Chinese rule. Many residents fear that this will not simply be forgotten at the stroke of midnight on June 30,1997.

MICHAEL STEINBERGER