In China's Hands, Hong Kong Still Much the Same


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 alluring.

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 memorably awful.)

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 self-censorship."

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.

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