HONG KONG -- You have to look hard to see what's changed here.
One hundred days after the return of this British colony to Chinese
rule, Hong Kong remains the living monument to the relentless
pursuit of wealth that it always was.
The press, particularly the English-language newspapers,
continue to engage in lively bashing of virtually everything. The
daily business of running what is now called the Hong Kong Special
Administrative Region of China is still performed by the
"exquisitely trained" civil service that was in place before the
handover, according to Doug Spelman, chief of the
economic-political section of the U.S. Consulate here.
The constantly heard mantra -- "business as usual" -- includes
"demonstrations as usual," Spelman said. The Chinese People's
Liberation Army, whose entry into Hong Kong moments after the July
30 handover provided one of the great photo opportunities of the
late 20th century, has rarely been seen since. "They keep a pretty
low profile," said Eden Woon, an American who heads the Hong Kong
General Chamber of Commerce. "They're right over there," he said,
waving toward the old Prince of Wales barracks from the window of
his office on Hong Kong Island, "but you hardly ever see them."
Hong Kong people suspect that those images of PLA trucks rolling
into the former colony in the wee hours of July 1 have contributed
to the drop in tourism that Hong Kong has seen in the last three
months. "You Americans think the Chinese army is running around
waving guns," an airline executive groused. But he acknowledged
that Hong Kong may have a larger, more enduring problem in
attracting tourism: "We've gotten so expensive," he said.
The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, at about 7.8
to US$1, providing stability but few bargains for Americans, who
might start the day with a $15 breakfast of coffee, juice and rolls
in a good (but not truly grand) hotel.
Visitor arrivals for August 1997 show sharp drops from August
1996 figures in the three largest markets: China, 198,324, down
14.1%; Taiwan, 162,284, down 20.8%, and Japan, 97,621, down 52.2%.
Arrivals from the U.S., the fourth largest market, were nearly
flat, at 52,751.
Stephen Wong of the Hong Kong Tourist Association said China had
anticipated that hotels would be full in the months following the
handover, so it held back on granting visas to Chinese citizens.
The Chinese government miscalculated; the hordes of journalists who
descended on Hong Kong for the handover quickly departed when the
aftermath failed to produce a dramatic story, Wong said.
Wong noted that the Taiwan and Japan markets were strong last
year, driven by a push to "see Hong Kong while you have the
chance," and have since adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude about
Hong Kong. As a tourist destination, Hong Kong is difficult to
pigeonhole. It has a handful of physical attractions: Victoria
Peak, from which visitors peer down at the tops of cloud-shrouded
skyscrapers or, on a clear night, at an ocean of neon surrounding
the harbor; Stanley Market, where some real bargains can be found
on designer clothing, along with the ubiquitous and sometimes
mystifying Chinese trinkets; Lantau Island, home to "the world's
largest seated outdoor Buddha."
But landmarks have never been the main attraction here; rather,
it is the heady cocktail of British colonial style, Eastern
exoticism and the naked worship of money that has made Hong Kong so
In time, the British influence is likely to fade. Douglas Henck,
director of the American Chamber of Commerce, noted that among the
expatriate community, Americans outnumber the British by two to one
and dominate every business market, though not overwhelmingly.
There have been subtle changes: Just a few years ago, European
faces predominated in British-style pubs and luxury hotels. Today,
those faces are more likely to be Asian. On the other hand, Lan
Kwai Fong, the lively and pricey bar district in Hong Kong Central,
is still an ex-pat enclave. (One of the lesser items inspired by
the handover can be found here: Red Dawn '97, a beer that is
Hong Kong people themselves don't agree on whether anything more
substantive has changed since July. A manager of an office products
and services company with offices in Beijing and Hong Kong insisted
that even without overt political repression, the handover had a
chilling effect on the press and political expression. But Frank
Martin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce, said he
could detect "no obvious evidence of cen- sorship or even
One newspaper marked the eve of the "100th day" by reprinting a
Washington Post opinion piece on China's treatment of the
imprisoned Wei Jingsheng. Still, China does not want Hong Kong to
become a base for political unrest, Martin said. Its fears stem
from its "potentially explosive" employment crisis, he said: The
recent 15th Party Congress called for the restructuring of Chinese
state-owned companies, a move that could put hundreds of thousands
of Chinese out of work.
On the other hand, Spelman said that "China does not want it
said that Hong Kong went downhill under Chinese rule," thereby
causing a tremendous loss of face. The biggest fear among Hong Kong
businesses is not that China will march in and do whatever it
pleases; Spelman noted that "China could have done what it wanted
long before the handover."
Martin said the fear is that Hong Kong, having rid itself of
corruption in the 1970s, will be reinfected by the corruption that
is pervasive in Chinese business dealings. The oft-asked question
is whether Hong Kong will become more like China or whether China
will become more like Hong Kong.
It may be worth recalling an old Chinese proverb: "Be careful
what you wish for; you may get it." The notion of massive China
adopting the ways of its relatively tiny Special Administrative
Region, untempered by religion, morality or social conscience,
could turn out to be the more frightening proposition.