Sticky Chinese fingers close to the honey pot

With exactly two years to go before the 'new Chinese dawn', Hong Kong citizens who can are getting out fast. Among those staying, the greatest fear is Peking's corruption, writes Stephen Vines
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The Independent Online
A giant electronic sign in the Chinese capital Peking flashed up the number 729 at the stroke of midnight yesterday. That's the number of days to go before the British colony of Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997 - exactly two years from today.

It is absolutely no surprise that the daily reminder of China's imminent takeover is being recorded in Peking but not in Hong Kong itself. After Britain in 1984 agreed to relinquish sovereignty, China's foreign minister Wu Xueqian told the Chinese parliament that the agreement was "an important historic event worthy of celebration". With exactly two years to go before the agreement is put into practice there is no one celebrating on the streets of Hong Kong. The only voices expressing confidence come from those paid to express optimism, or those seeking office in the new regime.

A more representative sample of the mood in Hong Kong can be gauged by visiting the colony's Kai Tak airport. Here you can see small groups of people clustered around the dull beige wall which separates departing passengers from well wishers. The mood is solemn; tissues are produced and tears flow freely. Hong Kong Chinese are not usually given to animated displays of emotion but the loss of relatives and close friends to emigration is a time for sorrow. "I don't want to go to Canada," says a radio producer, "I will never get a job like the one I've got here. I am a Chinese and prefer to live in a Chinese environment. But I have to think about my children's future, I have to make the effort for them."

The Hong Kong government admits that some 1,000 people are leaving each week to settle abroad, but the number is probably higher because many of those emigrating are already overseas when they apply for the right of abode. The top schools are finding that up to a third of their pupils are leaving each year. Even Baroness Dunn, the colony's most senior politician, who has travelled the world telling influential audiences how confident she feels about the future of Hong Kong, has announced that she is quitting, moving to London for "family reasons".

Perhaps more surprising are the Canadian immigration papers in the hands of Tsang Yuk-sing's wife and children. Mr Tsang leads the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the Peking-backed political party which is trying to persuade people that they will have a better future under Chinese rule. Two years ago the Hong Kong Transition Project, an academic research study on issues relating to the change in sovereignty, concluded that some 13 per cent of the population had either been granted the right of abode overseas or were in the process of seeking a refuge abroad. This estimate now appears to be modest. Indeed an opinion poll published yesterday shows that 22 per cent of respondents planned to emigrate.

The only reason the exodus has not been higher is the reluctance of recipient countries to allow in more Hong Kong people. They want, and get, the cream of the crop, people with skills or large sums of money. While countries such as Canada and Australia, the biggest migrant destinations, talk about their desire for Hong Kong to flourish they have no compunction about carefully extracting those most likely to make the colony thrive.

So what will become of those who are left behind? Hong Kong people pride themselves on their pragmatism. Those with no hope of leaving tend not to think about it. Instead they occupy themselves with strategies for surviving the transfer of power. At one extreme, the government's powerful Independent Commission Against Corruption has noted a rise in white-collar crime with growing complaints about rule bending and outright business fraud as some people scramble to make the last buck while stocks last. The majority have not resorted to such desperate measures but there is no disguising the sense that Hong Kong's golden days are gone, prompting parents to get their children to study harder (they even sit exams in nursery schools), while they themselves take on second jobs and are lured into all sorts of get-rich-quick schemes. .

The colonial system, often described as a "benevolent dictatorship", has rarely encouraged Hong Kong people to play a role in government or civic affairs. The British rulers preferred to work through a small, English- speaking coterie, who were wheeled out now and again to provide proof of local participation and to claim that they spoke on behalf of the 98 per cent of the population who are Chinese. The only hope of the old colonial establishment is to make itself acceptable to the new masters and to demonstrate that they can serve them even better. Little wonder therefore that civic mindedness is thin on the ground.

Most people prefer to keep their heads firmly down, hoping they will survive the Chinese avalanche by being as inconspicuous as possible. The eldest son of a family surnamed Wong, who live in one of the new satellite towns near the Chinese border, says proudly that he always votes for the Democratic Party, the party whose existence China refuses to acknowledge, but he would never sign a petition or make any public gesture to show his allegiance. "They," he says, meaning Chinese officials, "will soon get to know. It's not worth the risk. I hope the Democrats can do well, but they're taking a big chance." China has made it clear that it will not tolerate dissidents in Hong Kong and has branded both Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, the leaders of the Democratic Party, the most popular party, as "subversives".

China has carefully selected a raft of official advisers on Hong Kong affairs. Most are well versed in what the new masters want to hear and are careful not to deviate from the expected when proffering their opinions. Gone are the days when China talked of a through train carrying the legislators, the civil service and the all-important legal system, speeding from the colonial era to the new Chinese dawn. Now China says it will dismantle the legislature and look carefully at the suitability of the current leaders of the civil service. In addition, a shoddy deal has recently been struck with Britain to undermine the credibility of the highest court in the legal system by allowing so called "acts of state" to be taken out of the jurisdiction of Hong Kong's court of final appeal and placed in the hands of politicians in Peking.

The overriding fear of Hong Kong people is that China's endemic corruption will run riot after 1997. Officials in China talk about Hong Kong as "the 20th century's last gold mine". Most people in Hong Kong employ a different cliche: they view the territory as a giant honey pot into which Chinese officials will dip their fingers deeper and deeper, until they become so sticky that they cannot be withdrawn.