People adjust to Hong Kong's daily ups and downs: Teresa Poole finds that people riding the hillside escalator are confused about the row with China

SOON AFTER 10am, Hong Kong's latest engineering feat, a line of covered escalators and walkways that snakes uphill from the Central business district to the high-rise forest of Mid-levels, makes its usual daily change of direction. Built for the commuter, the escalator service runs downwards from dawn, and then switches direction in the mid- morning. Those on their way up gladly step from the pavement on to the escalator; people on their way down start walking instead.

It is a simple metaphor for the Hong Kong people's approach to life during the three and a half years remaining before sovereignty reverts to China in 1997. People are still ambitious, but resigned to having little control over decisions that will shape their future. Building an outdoor escalator link several hundred feet up the side of an urban hill crowded with sky-high beanpole apartment blocks is typical of Hong Kong's confidence. But those travelling onthe escalator know the daily change in direction, like the reversion of sovereignty to China, has its appointed hour and that their plans must take this into consideration. They also feel they have little or no say in the matter.

Hong Kong public opinion is difficult to gauge. Most people want both more democracy and smooth relations with China. An opinion poll in last weekend's Sunday Morning Post found people divided between thinking that China should make concessions, that Britain should, or expressing no opinion. Most polls show that at least 40 per cent seem to back the Governor, Chris Patten, in his move to push ahead with partial reforms, despite Chinese threats to break off talks on the colony's future; about a third are still on the fence. But the colony has become inured to the months of verbal warfare; some 60 per cent still think China will really continue to talk.

In Hardee's fast-food restaurant at the bottom of the escalator, a former employee of China Travel Service, a mainland state company in Hong Kong, said over breakfast: 'The majority of people are so confused. I think Mr Patten is doing the right thing. Maybe it's the first step to letting people know more about what has been going on in the talks.' She said she was not worried about 1997 'because I am Chinese', but at the same time said she was a supporter of Martin Lee, head of the pro-democracy United Democrats of Hong Kong, a man deemed subversive by Peking.

Working for a mainland company for 10 years had been very different to start with. 'It was difficult to learn. They have their own rules. If you love the country, you have to do certain things, they say. But it created no harm for anyone. During the next few years we all have to learn.'

Riding the escalator up the hill, one passes street stalls and alley restaurants teeming with Christmas shoppers. At the Chan Chun Lan tea company, S W Ng said he did not usually pay much attention to politics. 'People over- dramatise it'. Business in Hong Kong did not seem to be affected. 'I'm more concerned about cultural damage to our society. I think the most disturbing thing is the phoney values - like brand names, people thinking they have a better status if they have the ability to consume. You will find dignities and civilities are a rare thing among people now. So 1997 is an excuse for anything.'

Last week's verbal hostilities seemed to leave the population unruffled. 'Probably it will settle down again,' said a surveyor busy taking readings at the escalator. 'At the moment I don't worry about it. Because for the past two years they always argue all the time.' Many people say they support Mr Patten but that little can now be done about what happens after 1997. 'When you see it from outside, it looks as if Mr Patten is OK for the Hong Kong people. But after 1997, anything can change.' He voiced a common mistrust of the British: 'All this will be very good for (Mr Patten) when he goes back to Britain.' In the Sunday opinion poll, about 46 per cent thought Mr Patten was putting Britain's and his own interests first, rather than those of the colony.

As the escalator passes Hollywood Road, the antiques centre of Hong Kong, the shop windows show exquisite and expensive carved wooden furniture from China. At the next junction, the crockery shops are stacked high with cheap Chinese china. Everywhere is evidence of the profitable economic relationship between China and Hong Kong.

Living near the top of the escalator is John Walden, a former senior Hong Kong civil servant. He said: 'When Mr Patten came to Hong Kong and began to stand up for (the Hong Kong people) against Peking, they were glad. But as it has become more and more clear that he is not going to get Peking to loosen its control, many are beginning to fear that he could be doing more harm to them than good.

'I think that, although he is going to lose the battle for democracy in Hong Kong, he is helping to win the war to give Hong Kong people a higher degree of autonomy that they might have expected if Mr Patten had not drawn world attention to the fact that Hong Kong's freedoms are being threatened by the Peking regime.'