Slowly but unmistakably, Hong Kong's economic role is evolving -- backwards. The British colony has built its industries for three decades since 1949 to become the world's largest garment manufacturer. Now Hong Kong is resuming its historic role as an entrep^ot between China and China's global trading partners.
The shift could hardly have been better timed. As elsewhere in East Asia, Hong Kong's economy is slowing significantly as US demand falters.
Sir John Bremridge, Hong Kong's financial secretary, recently revised his 1985 growth forecast downward to 4.5 percent, less than half the 1984 gain. Some economists are more pessimistic, putting 1985's expansion at 3 to 4 percent. Exports, 45 percent of which are shipped to the US, are growing at a 1 percent rate compared to last year's 17 percent.
The blossoming of trade with China has been Hong Kong's only cushion against the slowdown in its principal market. This has underlined the shift under way in the economy's orientation.
``Hong Kong is in a position to be the first and greatest beneficiary of an increase in China's trade,'' says Willard Sharpe, a regional economist at Chase Manhattan bank's branch office here.
So far this year China's imports through Hong Kong have expanded by 140 percent. They grew at about the same pace in 1984. As a result, China recently leapfrogged Britain, West Germany, and Japan to become Hong Kong's second-largest trading partner behind the US.
Throughout the region there is keen interest in the mainland as Peking advances its economic modernization program. This reflects a recognized need to diversify Asia's markets -- especially as the threat of US protectionism grows.
But most governments approach the prospect of greater trade with China warily. One concern is overdependence on China's part; related to this is widespread worry that Peking may announce a sudden shift in its open-door policy.
Hong Kong has shown no such caution, nor can it, since China regains control of the territory in 1997. In the meantime, it is likely to demonstrate that the misgivings of others aren't unfounded.
China's effort to slow its imports to preserve foreign exchange, implemented over the past several months, is already beginning to show on Hong Kong's trade ledger. Equally, Hong Kong could be hurt more than most as China emerges as a competitor in Asia's markets.
``China's modernization cuts both ways,'' a diplomat here observes. ``If it's going to be a big market, it's obviously going to be a big exporter.''
Parts of Hong Kong's textile industry have already begun to drift into southern China, where wages remain roughly a third of those in Hong Kong.
In the long term, Chinese officials have already hinted that they would like Guangdong Province (Hong Kong's neighbor) to inherit much of the territory's industry, leaving Hong Kong as a center for banking, trading, and other services.