Hong Kong warily counting down to reunion with China
December 30, 1996
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 GMT)
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HONG KONG (CNN) -- It juts out of the South China Sea, surrounded by ships from across the globe. One of the busiest, richest, and freest societies on Earth is now counting down the days until -- at midnight on June 30, 1997 -- it becomes a Special Administrative region of the People's Republic of China.
On the surface, Hong Kong residents are calm about the upcoming transition. According to a just-released survey, more than half of those polled now say they want to join China after 1997, and 45 percent now approve of the provisional legislature chosen for them by Beijing.
But the survey also shows a dramatic rise in people's concerns over political stability and the spread of corruption after 1997.
Michael DeGolyer, the director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, sums up the country's attitude as wary hope. "There is a great deal, I think, of concern about this 'one country, two systems' experiment," he said. "There is a lot of anxiety about how this is actually going to work out."
But, he said, "I think people are going to measure it in very practical terms. Hong Kong people are like that." (22 sec. /288K AIFF or WAV sound)
The roots of their pragmatism go back to the colony's violent beginnings, when the undefended island became Britain's booty for winning the so-called Opium War against China. In 1941, the country went from callous British rule to brutal wartime occupation by Japan.
A few years later, the Communist Party took over China. As Chinese began fleeing the mainland, modern-day Hong Kong, struggling to absorb them, was born. Many of the migrants brought their businesses with them, and within years, Hong Kong evolved into Asia's greatest manufacturing center. One-time refugees now employ some 2 million people in the country they fled not so long ago.
Hong Kong residents believe 1997, another watershed date, will determine the shape of a new era for Hong Kong. Paul Chen, a Hong Kong businessman, is bullish on his country's future. "To me, 1997 is not the end of Hong Kong. It is the beginning of a new era for Hong Kong," he said.
His company, like so many others, uses Hong Kong as a gateway to China; he says that with the skills of the Hong Kong people and its position as a commercial center in the Far East, and China's current economic strength, the colony is bound to benefit. "If China does well, then we do very well, too. So I think all the signs are very positive," he said. (23 sec. /288K AIFF or WAV sound)
Louis Won is not so sure. He covers the Hong Kong legislature for a local newspaper. Like many others, he is afraid Chinese control could lead to Chinese-style repression. "A lot of people in Hong Kong like me worry that there may not be the rule of law in Hong Kong. We will enjoy less freedom of the press, less freedom of expression," he said.
In recent weeks, those fears have intensified. China's foreign minister issued a statement that curbs on political expression were likely, especially with the shape of Hong Kong's future political structure becoming clearer.
And Hong Kong's future politicians have emerged, their political leanings embodying China's priorities.
The new China-appointed legislature is made up of 60 pro-Beijing politicians to replace the territory's current, directly elected Legislative Council, in which Democrats make up the largest single party.
And shipping tycoon Tung Chee-Hwa, Beijing's choice as Hong Kong's first post-colonial chief executive, has echoed China's conservative line on civil liberties. "There is a need for us to renew our commitment to the values we hold dear, a belief in order and stability, an emphasis on obligation to the community rather than the rights of individuals," he said in a public appearance.
Yet despite political differences, in many practical ways, Hong Kong is increasingly acting as if it is a part of China. Many believe Hong Kong's economic ties to China may be the best guarantee of Hong Kong's future.
China has no reason, optimists argue, to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Few here disagree. But it is equally true that Hong Kong's long-term fate depends in large part on what happens in a mainland China facing explosive political, economic and social problems. And, as the pessimists frequently point out, the history of China is littered with dead geese.
Correspondents Patricia Chew and Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.
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