China's designs are rattling the economy of Hong Kong

From behind his desk, Hong Kong businessman Woo Han-Fai keeps watch on a bank of video screens as current stock and commodity prices tick by. A visitor has the impression that no fluctuation in Hong Kong's volatile markets would escape his attention.

''For the Chinese in Hong Kong, confidence is still a question,'' said Mr. Woo, chairman of Hong Kong's gold and silver exchange and leading officer of at least a half dozen other successful enterprises.

''The Chinese people here still fear a communist government. Even China's leaders now admit that China did things wrong in the past. We are most fearful of a return to class struggle, to a rectification campaign, or even to another Cultural Revolution,'' he said.

Other businessmen share the same concern: Can China's government only eight years after the fall of the ultra-leftist ''gang of four,'' and still espousing the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, do or say anything that will reassure Hong Kong's businessmen about the 1997 transition from British to Chinese rule?

The answer probably is no. But that does not mean that the business community here will not keep asking for assurances or that Britain will not continue to seek an honorable retreat with an agreement that will preserve, at least on paper, the special conditions that have made this the third-largest financial center in the world.

The unveiling earlier this month of some of the key provisions of the pending Sino-British agreement on the transfer of power in Hong Kong has not removed worries about the future.

The local Hang Seng stock index jumped almost 67 points after British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe announced the provisions agreed to so far in London's negotiations with Peking. This may have indicated a temporary easing of public anxiety, observers say. But there are many unanswered questions about the exact meaning of Peking's promises to keep Hong Kong's capitalist system unchanged for 50 years after the Union Jack comes down in 1997.

In recent months there have been an increasing number of reports indicating many Chinese businessmen have lost confidence in Hong Kong's future and are moving their investments out.

Earlier this year, the Hong Kong business community was shaken by the decision of Jardine, Matheson & Co., the most established trading company in Hong Kong, to move its legal domicile to Bermuda. Although the Hang Seng index dropped 62 points the day the decision was announced, there is no evidence so far the company is actually leaving Hong Kong. Financial analysts say it wants to be classified as a foreign company operating after 1997, and thus subject to fewer restrictions.

There is precious little data on movement of capital out of the country, however, since the Hong Kong government does not require the banking and finance industry to report capital flows.

London's Financial Times surveyed the outflow of Hong Kong dollars earlier this year and found that most of the money was going to Australia, Canada, and the US, with lesser amounts going to Singapore and Japan. For instance, during the 12 months ending June 1983, $800 US million of Hong Kong money arrived in Australia, the Financial Times reported. This compared to only $68 million for the same period in 1979-80.

The report said, however, that such statistics were misleading and vastly underestimated the amount of capital outflow since much Hong Kong money arrives at its destinations indirectly, through, say, New York or London, and is therefore difficult to trace.

In contrast to this lack of confidence on the part of some Chinese businessmen, foreign businessmen appear bullish. According to Emmie Wong, an economist who prepares forecasts for the Hong Kong government, Hong Kong has continued to attract steady amounts of Japanese and American investments.

The government's data on foreign investment are limited to the manufacturing sector of the economy. It shows that the main sources of overseas investment are the United States (47 percent), Japan (30 percent), and Britain (6 percent). There is a substantial British presence in the banking and services sector and a fast-growing Japanese share in banking as well. Japanese department stores have sprung up throughout the territory, but there is no measure of their market share.

Despite the 1997 jitters, which have become a normal part of the business climate here, Hong Kong's export-oriented economy is doing well, Mrs. Wong reports.

The Hong Kong dollar is strong - probably undervalued, says Wong - and the territory's output of goods and services grew by 14 percent in 1983. The economy has been performing better than the conservative 6 percent growth rate forecast for 1984, she said. The government shows unemployment at 4 percent.

It is perhaps the remarkable prosperity of Hong Kong in 1984 that has forced local businessmen to take a hard look at the future. Beyond the longstanding suspicions of China's Communist government, there are specific concerns which are more practical than ideological. These include Peking's shortage of firsthand knowledge about this sophisticated and unabashedly capitalist economy.

''They ought to sit down and learn more about Hong Kong and find out what makes it tick,'' said Ronald Li, chairman of Far East Exchange Ltd., the largest and most active of Hong Kong's four stock exchanges.

Mr. Li said he had had some friendly visits from Chinese officials, but that they showed little curiosity about Hong Kong's commercial and financial life. During an interview, he also raised the issue of how China will manage Hong Kong's strong and internationally traded dollar. China's own currency, the renminbi, is not traded on the world market, and if the official Bank of China issues Hong Kong's currency after 1997, it will not be internationally accepted either, he predicted. The openness of the foreign exchange markets and the free convertibility of the dollar are keys to Hong Kong's commercial success, he said.

These are complex issues, Li said, and there is little indication so far that China has thought about them.

Some Hong Kong businessmen would welcome a visit to the territory by China's top leaders in the hope that it would persuade them that Hong Kong must not be interfered with by its future masters.

''When a Chinese leader has seen Hong Kong - so much construction, so many skyscrapers, so prosperous - they will treasure Hong Kong's success and will help preserve its prosperity,'' said Woo Han-Fai.

''That would boost the Hong Kong people's confidence,'' he added.

Woo is now trying to gather support among business groups for a collective invitation to Deng Xiaoping and other top leaders in Peking to come to Hong Kong as unofficial visitors.

Other observers say that such a visit would merely aggravate anxieties about the post-1997 situation and not be helpful during the already awkward transition period.

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