HONG KONG — AMID the sweatshops, boisterous markets, and teeming apartment blocks of this capitalist enclave, China's Communist Party is secretly laying the groundwork for its takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. Clandestinely recruiting party members, manipulating left-wing unions and papers, and infiltrating political groups, the party is working to spread its influence into every niche of Hong Kong society.
``In almost every walk of life, the Communist Party controls organizations through money, directives and local sympathizers,'' says Apo Leung Po-lam, a labor activist and former member of Hong Kong's pro-China trade federation.
The Communist Party must operate underground, since it is not registered and thus illegal. And, its acts violate China's pledge not to meddle in Hong Kong affairs before resuming sovereignty in 1997.
Nevertheless, as Hong Kong nears its historic transformation from a British colony to a ``special administrative region'' of China, party intrusion is intensifying.
The party's most pressing goal is to subvert a liberal campaign for democracy that has won outspoken support among Hong Kong's 5.7 million residents - including many former communist sympathizers - since China crushed its own democracy movement on June 4.
Hong Kong people have lobbied Beijing to grant a wider scope for direct legislative elections in the ``basic law,'' China's post-1997 constitution for Hong Kong. Under Britain, residents have enjoyed only indirect representation, though basic rights are protected by law.
Yet China's leaders oppose rapid democratization that could threaten their grip on Hong Kong and fuel mainland unrest. Interviews with Hong Kong lawyers, unionists, officials, and journalists reveal how the party is rallying grassroots political groups against democratic change.
The party's main vehicle for penetrating local politics is dozens of left-wing organizations - from newspapers, women's groups, and neighborhood committees, to Hong Kong's biggest trade union federation.
Left-wing groups are directed from the party's local headquarters, based since the 1950s at the Hong Kong branch of the official New China News Agency.
The head of this ``shadow government'' ranks on a par with China's provincial party secretaries, says ``The Communist Party in Hong Kong,'' a book recently published here.
Using the tactics of its underground days in China, the party enlists members from Hong Kong's left-wing groups, whose ranks total hundreds of thousands. ``Communist Party recruitment in Hong Kong goes on across the social spectrum, but very confidentially,'' says a Chinese journalist who worked at a leftist newspaper here. ``I was approached to join the party several times.''
Through its pro-China organizations, the party is installing sympathizers on local representative bodies - from the 19 district boards to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's parliament.
``They are working very hard at the district level, wining and dining - there's no shortage of money,'' says Martin Lee Chu-ming, a legislator and prominent liberal activist.
Recently, China has mobilized left-wing supporters against the democratic upsurge that has swept Hong Kong this spring.
According to several sources, Beijing is backing a new political group called ``Hong Kong People Construct Hong Kong.''
``We have intimate contacts with China,'' says Cheng Jienan, one of the group's 34 founders and head of a pro-China teachers' union.
Uniting middle- and working-class supporters, the group has ambitions of becoming a political force able to compete with Hong Kong's liberal activists, says Leung Hon-hoi, a member of the group.
``The mainland has been encouraging leftists and centrists to form a political union to counter the influence of the liberals,'' said the journalist. Liberals, led by Mr. Lee and another legislator, Szeto Wah, plan to launch a political group this spring to promote democracy.
Also at Beijing's urging, left-wing groups have joined conservative businessmen in what some call an ``unholy alliance'' backing the least democratic models proposed for Hong Kong's ``basic law.'' Yet despite its covert maneuvering, the Communist Party's influence over grassroots politics in Hong Kong remains tenuous. The loyalty of left-wing groups was badly shaken by the Beijing massacre in June.
``Almost every left-wing organization in Hong Kong experienced an outflow of local staff,'' says the journalist, who quit his job at a pro-China newspaper in protest over the massacre.
China's leaders reacted by attempting to discipline errant followers. They extended the mainland's party purge and indoctrination campaign to Hong Kong. Local party officials and left-wing leaders were summoned to the mainland to watch Beijing's propaganda videotapes of the ``peaceful'' clearing of Tiananmen Square, several sources say.
``We wanted to convince them of the facts of Tiananmen Square,'' said a mainland official here, requesting anonymity.
Those who fought Beijing were sacked, most notably the head of Hong Kong's leading Communist Party mouthpiece, the newspaper Wen Wei Po. Recently, the head of a publishing house linked to China has been attacked for printing works by mainland dissidents during the democracy movement.
Yet the party has successfully re-enlisted some of the main pro-China bodies here, such as the giant Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU). Several elderly FTU executives, after indoctrination during ``tours'' in China, are again marching to the beat of Beijing's drum. ``Our leaders are Marxists, they are helping the party carry out its goals,'' says Mr. Leung, deputy chief secretary of the FTU.
Propaganda videos and ``patriotism'' sessions have also persuaded 70 percent of the FTU's 170,000 mainly blue-collar members to tolerate Beijing's line - compared to only 20 percent immediately after Tiananmen, Leung estimates.
Nevertheless, this allegiance appears to rest less on political conviction than on material calculations by left-wing groups reliant on China's financing.