Hong Kong keeps secrets but China eyes archives

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IN THE depths of Hong Kong's government records storage centre in Tuen Mun, a town in the New Territories which appears to have sprouted a forest of 30-storey tower blocks overnight, is a small display of historical documents. Spread out on a trestle table, next to a century-old photograph of decapitated pirates on Kowloon beach, is a map of the New Territories, drawn up for the Emperor in 1899. The characters on the map describe the sliver of China being leased to Britain as "worthless".

If the Chinese imagined then that they were striking a clever bargain, they could never have comprehended what wealth the gullible foreigners would return to them 99 years later. Part of the legacy they will receive in 21 months time is the warehouse full of records, a prospect which arouses concern among some of Hong Kong's six million people.

An assistant to Peter Lau, the director of the centre, turns the combination lock of a strongroom off the main archive and swings it open, but I am not permitted inside. At the far end of the room can be seen a safe which contains the most sensitive documents of all. "Not even I am allowed to know what is in them," says the urbane Mr Lau.

He will say nothing more, but it is not hard to speculate what kind of material might be unwelcome if it fell into the hands of the Chinese authorities. Communications intercepts from the array of listening posts on the Peak which sought to determine what was going on during thechaos of the Cultural Revolution. Interviews with the millions of refugees who flooded into Hong Kong then. Information on potential subversives and minutes of the Executive Council, the colony's "cabinet", comprising the Governor and his senior officials and advisers.

Last year China demanded that the personal files of all Hong Kong civil servants should be retained until the handover in 1997. Their motive, said one source, was to obtain details of the political vetting of senior officials in Hong Kong, carried out when they are promoted or appointed to sensitive posts. The Chinese were told that the civil service would continue its normal practice,which is to dispose of records once they have served their purpose.That includes the results of political vetting, which are destroyed once the appointment has been approved. The Chinese remain unsatisfied.

In 1993 a senior member of Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which has sweeping investigative powers, claimed after his sacking that the government kept files on the private lives and affiliations of people in public life. The ICAC would neither confirm nor deny the allegations. But one official identified the key factor: "I don't think people really mind if the files exist but they wouldn't be happy if they were handed over to China."

The 1984 Joint Declaration by China and Britain lays down that the departing British administration will be entitled to remove documents dealing with its relationship with the colony. "Other than that" said Mr Lau "the policy is whatever records are needed for administration will be handed over, which includes the entire archival holding here."

Chinese archivists have paid a goodwill visit to the centre, a former industrial building with reinforced floors capable of taking the weight of thousands of tons of paper - some years before the records were moved there two months ago, it was a temporary detention camp for Vietnamese boat people.

Pressed once more on what China might do with some of the information he holds, Mr Lau says: "We do keep a lot of sensitive information in the archives, but there is no attempt to review the documents, no attempt to decide that any should be taken away or destroyed. Our job is to receive what other departments decide to send to us."

As for what that might be, one official offered this assurance: "I don't think anything that would be instrumental in incriminating anyone politically should be handed over. It wouldn't be fair."