Hong Kong hears the drumbeat quicken

British journalist Jonathan Fenby took over the editorship of Hong Kong's `South China Morning Post' three months ago. This is his first analysis of how the territory is facing its future

Hong Kong, says Douglas Hurd, is "the last main chapter of our imperial history" unfolding in "the most stimulating place I ever visit".

The former Foreign Secretary is not a man given to flights of rhetorical fancy; if he was right in the words he used in Parliament in April, Hong Kong should be front-page news, the subject of thundering editorials and the venue for multi-disciplinary fact-finding missions. But who in Britain gives much of a thought to Hong Kong these days?

A few years ago, when Chris Patten was getting colonial governorship a good name in the liberal press and the names of Hong Kong politicians edged their way into British newspapers for the first time, Britain's awareness of its territory on the South China Sea rose sharply. In the process, people in the UK who had previously had but a dim image of Hong Kong, as a place where taipan traders made a lot of money in a concrete and glass jungle amid a bustling Chinese population, suddenly became aware that their country's last Asian possession was only British by virtue of an arrangement that would run out as surely as any of London's ducal leases just before the end of the century.

Mr Patten's arrival set up an easily understood confrontation: the last governor promoting democratic values against the authoritarianism of China. Here, in simple terms, was Britain doing the right thing in the twilight of empire, while Peking remained the last great bastion of Communist party rule, unrepentant for the killings in Tiananmen Square and facing the uncertainties of the post-Deng era.

It looked like a straightforward David-and-Goliath struggle, to be fought out with words rather than slings. Not even the most ardent supporters of the governor's democratisation policies actually proposed that Britain should use force to defend the values it was now propagating, but there was a strong feeling in proper-thinking circles in London that somehow right would win the day, that Hong Kong should move through the transition back to Chinese rule at midnight on 30 June 1997 as a new-found bastion of Western political values in a region that marches to a different drumbeat. At the same time, middle-class children of refugees from China, who had come to Hong Kong and rebuilt their lives in the 1950s and 1960s, looked with hope to the governor as a man who offered an escape from an anachronistic colonial administration that jarred with what they had been taught in their Western-influenced education and observed on their travels.

With just under two years to go until the Union flag comes down the pole at Government House, the interest in Hong Kong appears to have largely dissipated in Britain, and the democracy-seekers realise that they have a long way still to go, with little time left. The Chinese will next year name a chief executive to run the territory in 1997, a shadow legislature to take over from the Legislative Council and a shadow administration. Pragmatically, Hong Kong will increasingly look over its shoulder at the men and women of the future, rather than those exercising executive and legislative functions in a system with its sell-by date marked for all to see.

As for Britain, Mr Hurd may be stimulated, and the new Foreign Office minister for Hong Kong, Jeremy Hanley, may strike an upbeat note about the territory's future. But the finest port between Singapore and Shanghai, the world's sea container capital, the city founded to ensure Britons were free to trade opium into China, appears to have gone off the Westminster political radar. This may be partly in the short-term nature of the British political attention span, but it is - more deeply - a reflection of the way in which the last main imperial page has already been turned.

On paper, little may appear to have changed. The governor remains a mixture of pro-consul and big city mayor running a formidable machine. Hong Kong may now be called a territory rather than a colony, and there may be an elected Legislative Council, but so long as Mr Patten is in Government House and the civil servants hold the upper hand, it retains essential elements of a colonial system of government. Civil servants still hold sway and decide, for instance, that it would be dangerous to let legislators have detailed data on water purity because it might fall into the hands of the media, which would, presumably, pass it on to the people who actually use the water.

Some things do not change. Expatriates head home to escape the summer humidity, Scottish tones burr in boardrooms, income tax is 15 per cent, and British managers put enough aside to buy comfortable houses from the pages of Country Life which they would never had dreamt of if they had kept commuting from Surrey. At another extreme, a pro-Peking weekly has just run a cover story warning "Beware of the Brits", by which it means not the colonial administrators but young people coming to Hong Kong for "a quick buck and an easy life".

But the reality is that, in its own mind, Hong Kong has already declared its independence from Britain. As the summer rains pour down and thick clouds envelop the luxury homes on the Peak, it is a Chinese city that sprawls below. Visitors from Britain can compare prices with Oxford Street in Marks & Spencer outlets and sign up for Anita Roddick's latest crusade in Body Shops in the gleaming malls. But, outside these havens, they are surprised at how little English is spoken by the ordinary shop assistants - not to mention taxi drivers - and how few signs of Britishness there are.

Even among the expatriate population, the British position is not what it used to be. A count at the end of last year showed that the 26,000 British were outnumbered by 31,000 Americans. Hong Kong people worried about their future nationality position look to Canada and Singapore for passports, given Britain's restrictive policy. The total of expatriates living in Hong Kong from India, Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia outnumbers the combined total of British and Americans - not counting 150,000 Filipino and Thai domestic workers. Some 40 per cent of visitors to Hong Kong in June were from mainland China and Taiwan.

Old British attitudes and influence can still be felt in some quaint corners. There are proud knights and political contributors to Conservative Party funds (the new model Labour Party has yet to make its mark). The monarch's official birthday is a public holiday, and Hong Kong has a body to make Mary Whitehouse swoon with jealousy - the Obscene Articles Tribunal, which recently banned an advertising photograph of Michelangelo's David as indecent.

But the mother country is China, not Britain. Some 98 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese. From this month, all civil service applicants will have to sit a Chinese-language examination. A mainland Chinese company has just put in the winning bid to develop a plum former British military site on the harbour. The governor's 55.5 per cent approval rating is eclipsed by the 64 per cent scored by his chief secretary, Anson Chan, a leading candidate to become Hong Kong's chief executive in 1997.

This, inevitably, affects the position of John Major's best friend east of Southend. Chris Patten's reforming zeal may have cooled under the pressure of events, but he remains a non-person for Peking. One architectural pointer that has been much noted is the way in which the IM Pei-designed Bank of China Tower in the middle of town aims its sharp edge up the hill at the governor's mansion. Asked about Mr Patten's role in the transition of the next two years, a Hong Kong Chinese tycoon replied, as if gently instructing a child in the ways of the world: "But we are handling the transition."

"Put politics aside," said another Hong Kong-born Chinese businessman. "Whatever you think of the regime in Beijing, the fact is that, as Chinese, we are going home in 1997. We may not like what we find, but then who asked us if we liked what the British brought?"

We may be going into the most crucial period in the territory's history since Britain seized the island of Hong Kong in 1842 and then signed the lease that granted it the far larger New Territories across the harbour. But the die for what is happening now was cast in 1984 with the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's future and the drawing up by China of the Basic Law, which will serve as the territory's future constitution. The pill was sweetened by Peking's assurances that after 1997 it would adopt a "one country, two systems" approach, with the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong given particular status and freedoms for another 50 years. But once reversion to China had been signed and sealed, what remained to be worked out were the modalities of the process.

That is a reality which many in London, and some in Hong Kong itself, seek either to deny or to conceal. This is not a late imperial situation in which the burning question is independence. The sovereignty of Hong Kong will change, come what may, at midnight on June 30 1997, and the question then will be how China behaves towards the territory.

If Chris Patten had come to Hong Kong and launched his democratic reforms before the vital Sino-British agreement and the Basic Law, things might have been different. But, while they found the governor's style refreshing and did not doubt his commitment, Hong Kong in 1995 is not a place where people can be expected to rush to the barricades to defend freedoms denied to them for nearly a century of British rule.

The leading anti-Peking politician, Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party, feels deeply let down by the governor. He asks how Mr Patten can sleep soundly at night after British concessions to reach agreement with the Chinese this summer on the vital issue of the Court of Final Appeal, which will oversee the continuation, or otherwise, of the rule of law in Hong Kong post-1997.

Mr Lee has high hopes of the elections next month, which will produce the first fully elected Council without the traditional appointed members. But some fellow-thinking legislators conclude unhappily that because half its members will be elected by professional "functional" constituencies, where business and established interests can make themselves powerfully felt, the new majority is bound to be a conservative one that will not want to make any serious waves with Peking.

At the end of conversations about 1997, the Democrats and their sympathisers tend to fall back on the argument that Hong Kong's best hope is to refuse to make any compromise of basic principles and to dare Peking to do its worst - betting that it will back off in the face of local and world opinion. That could amount to the ultimate in gesture politics. It may have nobility on its side, leading Mr Patten to dub Mr Lee "a lay saint", but, if translated from rhetoric into reality, it is not a course that seems in keeping with the mentality of Hong Kong or with the colonial civil service-cum- business environment.

This is, after all, a city that adorns its central square beside the Legislative Council building with a memorial to the Victorian-era chief manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. This is a society in which a recent opinion poll picked a property tycoon as the territory's most creative person. This is a community in which only a third of those eligible to vote in the September legislative elections have registered to do so. Western liberals may regret that it is not more like the democracies they spring from, but there is an element in their well-meaning warnings of the right-wing attitude to Africa of the 1960s turned on its head: what a pity the natives aren't British, can they really be trusted with the place?

The return to China naturally hangs over everything, but the coming election campaign appears likely to be concerned with everyday issues rather than the geopolitics of 1997. In part, this may be because people are confused about what to think. A poll in May showed 48 per cent of respondents saying they believed the territory would be better served if Britain withdrew immediately and let the people of Hong Kong manage their own affairs. The only future actually on offer - becoming a Special Administrative Region of China - was welcomed by 25 per cent, while 22 per cent wanted independence and 31 per cent supported remaining part of Britain.

While from one point of view the territory's future is set in stone, from another it is infinitely malleable, provided that "one country, two systems" has any meaning. Despite the current slump in the vital property sector, some leading business figures expect a boom in the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty and another bigger and longer boom as mainland Chinese move into Hong Kong and go native. If that happens, 1997 may not live up to the titles of a stream of books predicting the death of Hong Kong. What has already died is the British era, but it is the final flick of the colonial fan to assume that the passing of imperial power is automatically fatal.

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