HONG KONG — The US has surpassed Britain as the dominant foreign presence in Hong Kong, with an enormous stake in maintaining Hong Kong's economic success and freedoms after it becomes a special region of China on July 1, 1997.
In recent years, Americans have comprised the largest and most influential foreign community in the British colony. And while the number of Americans is still rising, Britons are leaving. As of July 1, British citizens, like other expatriates, must obtain visas to live here.
More than 36,000 Americans live here now, and some 1,000 US companies have offices in Hong Kong. In total, more than $14 billion worth of investments and some $50 billion in bank loans are at risk.
Yet "I don't know of a single American company that has left Hong Kong specifically because of the impending transfer of sovereignty," says Frank Martin, president of the local American Chamber of Commerce. Some have moved away for other reasons: rising costs and rents.
Though the US was not party to the 1984 agreement returning Hong Kong to China on July 1, it will likely take on the role of guarantor of Hong Kong's freedoms and autonomy. This is inevitable given the stakes and the fact that Washington has more influence in Beijing than does London.
Typical of the Americans here are Fred and Mary Marsh. They moved from Orange County, Calif., in 1994. Mr. Marsh, a senior manager for the American construction giant Bechtel, travels extensively supervising his company's power projects in Asia.
Like many of their compatriots, the Marshes lead an interesting and comfortable life centered around work and church, and they have no plans to leave because of the change of flags. "I have mixed emotions about it," says Mrs. Marsh of the impending change. "I don't think it will affect us personally, but I have concerns for Hong Kong and the [Christian] churches."
Many Americans have become influential in Hong Kong affairs. Henry Townsend, for example, heads the local airport authority, which is currently building a massive new airport on an artificial island. Mary Worden, who used to write speeches for former US Attorney-General Richard Thornberg, now writes them for Martin Lee, the territory's most prominent democratic politician.
Paul Cheung runs Landscape, one of Hong Kong's oldest trading companies and also serves on the local legislature (as do two other American citizens). Ira Kaye, a local businessman, holds the Order of the British Empire for his charity work.
"We're at the leading edge of a leading-edge city," says US Consul-General Richard Boucher, who heads the US's largest non-embassy diplomatic mission in Asia.
Many local Hong Kong residents have close connections with the US too. Either they were educated there - about 14,000 are in US colleges and universities right now - or they have relatives who moved to the US.
Washington's official interest in Hong Kong's future is expressed in the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which requires periodic reports to Congress meant to ensure that China is living up to the agreement it made with Britain to allow post-1997 Hong Kong "a high degree of autonomy." There are practical reasons for this legislation, since many aspects of America's relations with the future Special Administrative Region - from extraditing accused criminals to observing various commercial treaties - presume that Hong Kong will continue to be a distinct legal entity, separate from China.
But some of China's recent actions, such as disbanding the elected legislature and invalidating some colonial laws, have convinced many congressmen that another law is needed. Hence the Hong Kong Reversion Act, which passed the US House of Representatives 416 to 1 in March and now awaits Senate action.
It declares that the US will take an official interest in the degree to which China respects the rule of law, freedom of the press, and the free flow of information.
Americans repeatedly have been reassured that their businesses, property, clubs, schools, and churches will be protected or carry on essentially as before.
The large American investment, not to mention the large number of people who live here or pass through here every year, means that Hong Kong will continue to be one of America's main policy concerns in Asia in the coming years and will undoubtedly influence its often delicate relations with China.
Already recent actions have caused some disquiet among lawmakers. The annual renewal of China's trading privileges, known as most-favored-nation status, may be delayed until after the handover date. Permanent extension of MFN and China's coveted membership in the World Trade Organization, among other issues, may depend on "good behavior" in Hong Kong.
US PRESENCE: THE NUMBERS
* 40,800 Americans live in Hong Kong.
* 1,200 American firms have offices in Hong Kong.
* The US has $14 billion in direct investments.
* 750,000 American tourists visit every year.
* The US has a $6.9 billion trade surplus with Hong Kong.*
*Hong Kong is America's 13th-largest trading partner