In less than 22 months, when the whole lot is handed over to China, the wealth of the world's eighth largest trading economy will be Britain's justification for a century and a half of colonial rule. Whether this is enough, whether its 6 million subjects here want something more than the opportunity to make money, is a question no one wanted to ask until it was too late.
Sunday's Legislative Council election was the last and best chance for the people of Hong Kong to say what they thought, both of their past and their future. The poll was the culmination of three years of bitter conflict between China and the Governor, Chris Patten, over his attempts to leave behind a more democratic Hong Kong. Yet fewer than a million of the 2.5 million registered voters turned out. Whether those who stayed away did so because Mr Patten and his officials were not up for election, or because China repeated on election day that it will replace the entire legislature in 1997, the Governor will miss their support during the difficult transition to Chinese rule.
In the 651 days left, Hong Kong faces the greatest period of uncertainty in its history. Up to half a dozen centres of power will be competing for control of the territory and its riches, and Mr Patten will need all his political magic to escape a messy withdrawal from Britain's last major colony. Whether or not that happens, however, depends mainly on Peking.
When China signed the Joint Declaration with Britain in 1984 on Hong Kong's future, it thought it knew what it was getting - a politically docile territory with the necessary economic skills to complement China's own newly hatched reforms. For the British it seemed an honourable bargain. Independence for Hong Kong was never a possibility, and China appeared to be going the right way. Not only would economic development dilute the ideology and loosen the Communist Party's grip, but Peking had agreed to run the territory according to the concept of "one country, two systems".
The Peking massacre of June 1989 destroyed every one of those assumptions, on both sides. "It made China paranoid about security and obsessed with sovereignty," in the words of one senior British official - an attitude reflected in its plans for Hong Kong. Even if Britain had been prepared to put up with constant humiliation in the interests of a smooth transition, it seemed that Hong Kong's people, who staged the largest demonstrations in the colony's history after Tiananmen, were not prepared to go quietly in 1997.
Mr Patten's attempt to strengthen democracy in Hong Kong without risking a complete breakdown with China forced him to cobble together an electoral system that is virtually impossible to explain, and which upset China's political opponents in the colony, led by Martin Lee's Democratic Party, as much as Peking. Last weekend the administration was left in the curious position of wanting an election result that would demonstrate Hong Kong's support for democracy, but not to the extent of giving Mr Lee and his allies a majority in the Legislative Council which they could use to take on China. A senior official added bluntly: "I think it would be a good thing if the pro-Chinese forces were not slaughtered." If the legislature was unruly, it would "guarantee that the Chinese will knock the house down and start again".
The administration appears to have gained the result it wanted - the Democrats and their allies will control 29 of the council's 60 votes, giving the pro-Chinese bloc a slim majority. But both the Democrats and the pro-Peking lobby have courted votes by pushing expensive social welfare schemes that will horrify everyone else - not only the administration and the business community, but China, which is trying to end its own citizens' dependence on the state. Economically if not politically, Peking will insist upon "one country, two systems". If the Governor tries to manipulate or ignore the Legislative Council, however, he licenses the Chinese to do the same.
Then there is China's threat to replace the legislature. At best this could simply be a face-saving exercise in reappointing all the existing members, as Mr Patten's officials still hope - one called it a "carwash". Or, to use another popular analogy, the "through train" could be halted while some members, probably Martin Lee and others China has named in the past as "subversives", are taken off. The worst case would be a parallel legislature full of China's friends, chosen as early as next year, though that would seriously damage the colony's morale. The trouble is that Peking will not say when it is going to announce a decision.
Since his appointment the Governor has had to compete for influence in Hong Kong with the New China News Agency, Peking's unofficial embassy, whose 500 employees produce few news reports. But by this time next year his successor will have been named, and by the end of 1996 the future chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will have chosen his or her top officials - the so-called "team designate", with which Mr Patten and the rest of the administration is committed to co- operate in the run-up to 1 July 1997.
British officials permit themselves to hope that at least some of the senior members of the administration, such as Anson Chan, the Chief Secretary, and Donald Tsang, the Financial Secretary, will be appointed to serve beyond 1997. "If they stay in office," said one source, "the rest of the administration will remain in place, and the business community will be reassured. Confidence will fall if suckers-up gain position."
But not knowing whether they will have a job in 22 months' time has already persuaded some others not to wait: last week Michael Sze, the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, who was savagely attacked for his role in Mr Patten's reforms, was the latest to leave. Even if many officials carry on, within months they will begin to face huge problems knowing whose orders to take.
It is hard to envy Mr Patten's job in the dying months of British rule. As soon as his successor is known he will be overshadowed, while still having to deal with a volatile Legislative Council. More and more Hong Kong people, meanwhile, will be drifting away from his side in the direction of China, seeking to join the ranks of "advisers" who hope to gain favour from the future sovereign power.
One businessman agreed that the Governor could not win, but added: "So what? He can say that despite everything, the economy is still growing, people are still getting rich, and Hong Kong is still standing."
We are back with homo economicus. As he plays out the endgame, perhaps Mr Patten can tell himself that nothing else matters.Reuse content