Hong Kong: the last 100 days

As the handover to China approaches, fears and uncertainties about the future are multiplying. Raymond Whitaker reports
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"I've just been invited to the handover ceremony by Chris Patten's people," said one of the pillars of Hong Kong's expatriate community last week, "but I don't know whether it's a good idea to accept. It would be nice to have a ringside seat, but I've got to carry on living here afterwards, and being seen to identify with the British could be unwise."

Such uncertainties are multiplying this week, as the number of days to the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong clicks down from 100 into double figures. Many people prefer not to dwell on the impending reality of Chinese control - the august Hong Kong Club, for example, is selling tickets at $1,997 (pounds 1,000) a couple for something on the night of 30 June it can only bring itself to call "the historic event".

For those wanting to live for the moment there are plenty of distractions, such as the rugby sevens World Cup, an expat extravaganza which has packed the bar of the Mandarin Hotel with broad-shouldered men smiting old comrades in welcome and noisily buying each other beers. The main headlines in the South China Morning Post last week were not about talks between Britain and China in London, but about a swoop by anti-corruption investigators on trainers and officials implicated in a race-fixing scandal. If anything could undermine the stability of a place addicted to gambling, some cynics suggest, it would be the possibility that horses have been nobbled.

Nor will Hong Kong ever ignore the chance to make a profit, handover or no handover. Thousands of collectors and speculators besieged the General Post Office last Tuesday as stamps bearing the Queen's head went on sale for the last time. One person collapsed and died in the 15-hour queue winding through the Central district, and the authorities had to ration purchases. "I can sell these for 50 to 80 per cent more than their face value," said one triumphant buyer. The wider implications of the end of British rule were of no concern to him.

Some take refuge in amusement at the fact that the Queen's birthday holiday falls on the last day of British rule, morphing immediately into two days off to celebrate the return of sovereignty to China. "And then there is China's national holiday on the first two days of October," said one parent. "Are we going to be celebrating that in future?"

Nobody is sure, and the degree to which Hong Kong is passing into the unknown on the other side of 30 June is the main reason why few want to look too far ahead. There is plenty of speculation about the personality and policies of Tung Chee-hwa, who will succeed Chris Patten as Hong Kong's chief executive, and a rush of place-seekers to his side, but few actions to judge him by. Even on such an urgent matter as clarifying who will have the right of abode in Hong Kong there is confusion, forcing thousands of students and businessmen now abroad to contemplate having to return before 1 July to establish residence and leading one to comment: "It could be like Bethlehem 1,997 years ago."

Mr Tung promoted confidence by announcing that he would retain senior officials such as Anson Chan, Mr Patten's deputy, and Donald Tsang, the Financial Secretary, but undermined it by his unquestioning support for proposals which disturbed Hong Kong. Qian Qichen, China's Foreign Minister, suggested the territory would need new history schoolbooks, for example; Mr Tung instantly agreed. When China voted to throttle the freedom to associate and demonstrate, the former shipping magnate backed that too.

"Both episodes demonstrated his lack of experience," said a political source. "He did not have to speak out, and when he did it made things worse. Now he has had to promise public consultation on the rights question, and everyone will be watching closely to see whether it is rigged."

There will be other tests for Mr Tung before the handover - the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on 4 June may be one - but the main questions about him can only be answered later. How much clout will he have in Peking? Will the Communist Party, in the shape of the New China News Agency, Peking's unofficial "embassy" in the colony, have any sway over him? In short, will the "one country, two systems" concept have any meaning following the death of its creator, Deng Xiaoping? One will have to wait several hundred more days to see.

As the endgame is played out, one of the main problems for Britain is to counter the suggestion that China will do as it likes, partly because that makes it easier to happen. Or, as one source put it: "If people make assumptions about how things will be, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." But at the moment bets are being hedged all over Hong Kong, and the territory's last Governor may find that many of his invitations for 30 June are answered with regrets.