HONG KONG — This is the time of year when Hong Kong people show their true colors. On Oct. 1, China's National Day, out come the red and yellow, five star flags of the People's Republic of China. Ten days later on Oct. 10 those who sympathize with Taiwan break out their banners.
In recent years it has often seemed as if the flags of Taiwan far outnumbered those of the mainland, as though to underscore the fact that the next time Taiwan's national holiday rolls around it won't be visible. "We believe this is the last time we can publicly display Taiwan's flag," says Tai Sik-kwan, who, along with sympathizers, draped a huge banner on top of Hong Kong's tallest peak.
There has always been a sizable Taiwanese community in Hong Kong. Initially, they were refugees from the losing side of China's civil war. Many flooded the territory after the Communist victory in 1949. Lately, they have been joined by businessmen, who like most other expatriates, are here because of the enormous opportunities for business with the Chinese mainland.
One of the oldest and most colorful of their enclaves was a village called Rennie's Mill on the Kowloon Peninsula. (The name came from a Canadian, whose flour mill on the site went bankrupt in 1923). It was the home to thousands of non-Communist army soldiers and their families. Every year, they proudly displayed the Nationalist Chinese flag and portraits of their hero, the late Gen. Chiang Kai-shek.
This past summer the Hong Kong government condemned the village and moved the residents to nearby housing developments. Ostensibly, the move was part of a long-planned redevelopment. But there was also the widespread belief that the primary motive was to remove all traces of this "Little Taiwan" before Hong Kong's handover.
But Rennie's Mill was not the only cluster of Taiwan sympathizers. Symbols of the island's presence throughout the territory are pervasive, if low-key. There are about 20,000 Taiwanese passport holders in Hong Kong, about equal to the number of American or even British subjects. Like others, they wonder what life will be like for them after Hong Kong changes owners on July 1, 1997.
For Beijing, Taiwan is too useful to evict
Lacking any diplomatic relations with Britain, Taiwanese interests in the colony are represented through a network of officials disguised as travel agents, cultural attachs, or trade services advisers. At the head is the Chung Wha Travel Service, whose director is usually appointed by the foreign ministry. He is Taipei's de facto ambassador to Hong Kong.
Leaders in Beijing have a keen appreciation of the value of Taiwan's presence in Hong Kong. They know that the colony is an indispensable channel for the multibillion-dollar flow of capital, goods, and tourists from Taiwan onto the mainland, as well as an outlet for products made in China in Taiwan-owned factories.
Mindful of this, Beijing has adopted what appears to be a fairly tolerant attitude toward Taipei's continued presence in Hong Kong. Except in matters of symbolism, as shown by flags, it should be business as usual. The existing unofficial organizations will be allowed to continue, China's Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said recently.
Mutual accommodations made
For its part, Taiwan has to make some adjustments. After Hong Kong becomes a formal part of the mainland, it would technically come under the Taiwanese statute that forbids direct trade. So the legislature in Taipei is drafting new laws that would redefine Hong Kong as a special area distinct from the mainland thus permitting presently forbidden contacts.
There have been difficulties in fleshing out the details of these general principles because "unofficial" talks between China and Taiwan have been suspended ever since Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui visited the US more than a year ago. They have not resumed.
"Having an agreement in place before the handover is crucial," says Susie Chang, director of Taipei's Kwang Hwa Information and Cultural Center.
This month, hundreds of prominent citizens gathered in the ballroom of a five-star hotel to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China.
On the walls were more flags and portraits of the Republic's patron saint, Sun Yat-sen. One of the questions of the hour was whether such a gathering might be permitted next year.
"The Chinese are practical people," maintains Yau Shing Mu of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. "Next year, they'll just drop the flags and call it the 86th anniversary of the Revolution." Nobody can argue with that.