Hong Kong's Minorities Prepare for Chinese Takeover

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NOT since his family fled the Indian subcontinent's brutal partition more than four decades ago has Raj Sital's family felt so rootless.

Mr. Sital is a wealthy Indian watch producer and prominent businessman in Hong Kong. But come 1997 when the colony reverts to China, he and thousands of other minority residents will be stateless, with no place legally to call home.

Still, Sital says this time his family is staying put.

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"We want to remain and contribute toward the economy of Hong Kong after 1997," the businessman says. "But many people like me could end up having no passport at all."

The bustling entrepot of Hong Kong is careening toward Chinese rule, and the British colony's 6 million people have watched China and Britain do verbal battle over Hong Kong's political future. In the process, more than 30,000 Asians have been relegated to the wings.

About 98 percent of the colony's residents are ethnic Chinese and will rejoin the mainland as citizens in less than five years.

But Beijing says a pocket of Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Thais, Indonesians, and other Asians who hold Hong Kong British passports but will not be allowed to live in Britain, cannot become Chinese passport-holders either.

That forces them to scramble for another nationality or accept the consequences that many Indians, who make up the largest group of stateless colony residents, are ready to accept, they say.

For the Indians, many of whom escaped the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, going back to their native country is not an option. This was made especially clear in recent weeks, as sectarian violence has thrown a cloud over India's future.

Many Indians, who recently sent a delegation to Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten to lobby for clarification of their legal status, also feel completely at home in a colony whose national pastime is making money, community leaders say.

"Many Indian families know no home other than Hong Kong," says C. N. Subramanian, an official with the Indian Chamber of Commerce who estimates that Indian-owned firms earn more than $8 billion annually, 10 percent of Hong Kong's total output. "We have a vital stake in the future of the colony."

Yet Indians are as uneasy about their business investments as their political status. Hong Kong's economy has taken a beating since Mr. Patten, Britain's last governor of the colony, triggered a political crisis when he unveiled modest democratic reforms in October.

Insulted by the British move, Beijing's aging Communists have lashed out at the English politician with a vehemence that has shaken support for Patten in some quarters. With threats against honoring any contracts finalized in the run-up to 1997, China has set the stock market in flux.

The stock market tumbled yesterday when Lu Ping, head of Hong Kong and Macao affairs for the Beijing government, cast doubts on whether a March meeting between Hong Kong and Britain's foreign ministers would be held.

The Indians admit they are anxious about being people without a country. But they say they find solace in the market potential of a reunified Hong Kong and China.

"People are prepared for the changes here," Sital says, "so long as they can keep making money."

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