Hong Kong Acts to Stem Exodus Before Takeover


Raymond Lau says it was the violence of last June's crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing that made him decide it would be wise to get out of Hong Kong before July 1, 1997.

On that day, by agreement between London and Beijing, China will resume sovereignty over this freewheeling British colony. Just what will happen then, no one can say for sure. But after June's bloodshed in Beijing, Lau fears the worst.

"It was terrible, what happened," Lau said while visiting the Canadian Consulate here, where he had gone to find out about immigration rules. "I don't know what Hong Kong will look like after 1997. I'm afraid the policy about human rights may change."

Lau, a 35-year-old surveyor, is not alone. Every week, about 1,000 people leave for new lives overseas.

Yet Hong Kong does not look like a city facing doom. At noisy construction sites, office towers claw their way skyward. Soaring over all is the new, 70-story Bank of China building, designed by the American architect I. M. Pei as a symbol of Chinese modernization.

Hong Kong's prosperous face reflects its status as the gateway to China and its growing integration with industries across the border.

"I'm optimistic because of the role Hong Kong could continue to play in the development of China," said Leung Chun-ying, an executive with the real estate consulting firm of Jones Lang Wootton. "Despite what happened in May and June, I think the country is still moving in the right direction."

Most people here agree that Beijing, in promising that Hong Kong can maintain its capitalist system and free society for at least 50 years, hopes to preserve the city's prosperity.

Doubts revolve around whether the Communists know how to do this, however. Do Beijing's leaders understand the link between freedom and wealth? Will they provide the assurances needed to prevent a debilitating brain drain? What guarantees do Hong Kong's people really have?

These questions give rise to debate about what should be done to encourage people like Raymond Lau to stay and to reassure them that if they do, their fears will not come true.

One plan, endorsed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, aims at stemming the brain drain by offering British citizenship, paradoxically, to 50,000 key individuals whose contributions are deemed most important to Hong Kong's continued prosperity. Their dependents would also be given British passports, adding up to a total of about 225,000 people expected to be covered by the plan if the British Parliament approves it.

In theory, the great majority of these selected officials, entrepreneurs and professionals would prefer to remain in Hong Kong and will do so if they have British passports allowing them to resettle in Britain if things go badly under Chinese rule. Without such protection, the theory goes, many more would seek Canadian, Australian or American citizenship before 1997--a choice that would require them to leave Hong Kong in the next few years.

Another plan, favored by liberal activists, calls for rapid transition to more representative government in Hong Kong, which under Britain has civil liberties but no self-rule. Leaders like Martin Lee, a prominent campaigner for democratic reform, argue that this is the best way to strengthen the voice of Hong Kong's people in their dealings with Beijing and thus increase the chances of preserving the freedoms essential to prosperity.

Plans agreed to by London and Beijing call for gradual implementation of moderate democratic reform, including the direct election of some members of the Legislative Council.

But under these plans--and under the Hong Kong Basic Law, the constitution that Beijing approved this month and which is to take effect in 1997--ultimate power remains in the hands of Hong Kong's governor, and after July 1, 1997, Beijing will control this post.

Lee is among those who argue that the Basic Law does not go far enough to reassure the 5.8 million people of Hong Kong that their rights will be protected.

Others argue that democratic self-rule is unimportant and that the key to a good future lies in accommodation with Beijing. Many of these people are business leaders, and in the parlance of local politics, they are usually called conservatives.

"By and large, the Basic Law will serve the long-term interests of Hong Kong," said Leung, the real estate consultant, who is a prominent advocate of the conservative viewpoint. "Hong Kong's future, in terms of stability and prosperity, depends very heavily on our relationship with China, from daily necessities, food supply and water supply up to economic development. A lot depends on how we manage our relationship with China."

The June 4 crackdown in Beijing was "a very sad event," Leung said, adding: "One would hope that China would do its best not to frighten Hong Kong people any more."

But Leung said there is also a lesson that must be learned, that the one-country, two-systems formula by which Beijing promises to allow Hong Kong to remain capitalist also requires Hong Kong to allow China to remain Communist.

"I consider myself Chinese," Leung said. "I don't have any foreign residence or foreign passport. But I've come to the conclusion that there are things in China in which I cannot take part, in the same way I would expect people in China not to take part in Hong Kong affairs."

To illustrate his point, Leung drew a hypothetical comparison to the large-scale moral and financial support that some activists here provided last spring to the pro-democracy movement in Beijing.

Imagine, he said, that large numbers of Hong Kong workers were laid off, without significant benefits, and people in China decided that this was an outrage.

"From their perspective, this is all wrong," he said.

Then imagine, he said, that money was sent to the striking workers and that representatives came to Hong Kong to urge workers to "struggle against the capitalists."

"Would Hong Kong people be prepared to allow that?" he asked. "Where is the line drawn? Geographically, we know where the line is drawn. But politically, where should the line be drawn?"

Leung said he has no clear answer to exactly how the interplay between Hong Kong and the rest of China will work after 1997. But he said that "whatever we do, we cannot do things on the mainland against the wishes of the Chinese government."

This desire to avoid frightening or antagonizing Beijing is a key conservative concern. It is paired with faith that Hong Kong's future depends on business, not politics.

Andrew Wong, a lecturer in government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, summarized the conservative view.

"Some people believe," he said, "that China will not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. That means Hong Kong is useful to China to the extent that Hong Kong maintains its prosperity, producing foreign exchange earnings for China.

"So long as we maintain this prosperity, we'll be all right, and the key to maintaining prosperity is to behave well and continue to attract foreign investment," he continued. "For that climate to hold in Hong Kong it is important that we do not change the existing system, including the political system (of rule by an appointed governor), too much. . . . There shouldn't be full democracy in the Western sense implemented in Hong Kong because, given the proximity to China, China fears that our system may contaminate their system."

Lee, who is a lawyer, a member of the Legislative Council and chairman of a newly formed political party called the United Democrats of Hong Kong, agrees that China may well see Hong Kong's capitalism and civil liberties as a threat to its system.

"The leaders of China . . . are afraid that democracy in Hong Kong will make it very difficult to stop democracy from being introduced into China," he said. "Their own positions will be jeopardized. Not only that, their lives would be in jeopardy. . . .

"Yes, they want the goose to continue to lay golden eggs, but once they feel that the goose is going to attack them, what will they do? They will squeeze the goose by the neck so it cannot attack them. Of course it will no longer lay golden eggs, but they will have control. Of course they are concerned that so many of the best people are leaving, but they would rather have them leave than stay and cause trouble later."

Lee's scenario captures exactly what it is that his critics fear would be the result of genuine self-rule in Hong Kong. But his response is that "kneeling on our knees won't help Hong Kong."

"Hong Kong is such a vibrant international city because everyone wants to do better than the others," he said. "Do you think we can still come up with new ideas when you switch your mind off? Once you accept your fate--'Don't confront China'--what does that mean? It means, 'Get ready to be a slave.' "

Lee held out no hope that China's current leaders will approve democratic amendments to the Basic Law. But it is possible, he said, that more reformist leaders may come to power in Beijing before 1997, and they might agree to revisions in order to promote confidence and prosperity in Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai, a wealthy businessman who helped pay for tents shipped from Hong Kong for use by students demonstrating last May in Beijing's Tian An Men Square, agreed that "to prostrate ourselves just because we have to keep a capitalist system here is a ridiculous idea."

But he does not think more promises written into the Basic Law would make any real difference.

"Hong Kong's hope hinges on the democratization of China," said Lai, who has recently gone into the magazine publishing business. "If we don't have conviction in this democratization--like what we've already seen in Eastern Europe and Russia--then Hong Kong has no hope. To believe in this irreversible trend is our only hope."

And if China's government does not change fundamentally by 1997?

"I will close down my publishing and go somewhere else where I will be free," Lai said. "If the choice is between being Chinese or being a free human, I will choose the latter."


The 410-square-mile colony of Hong Kong consists of two parts: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, both ceded by China to Britain in the mid-19th Century; and the mainland area of the New Territories, leased for 99 years in 1898. Most of the population of nearly 6 million is concentrated on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. In 1984, after two years of negotiations, Britain and China agreed on a transition to Chinese sovereignty. Communist China will regain title to the entire area on July 1, 1997, when the lease of the New Territories expires, while agreeing to allow the enclave to remain capitalist for 50 years.

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