GOING into the last thousand days before this Queen's Colony is scheduled to become part of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong professionals - perhaps the best able to judge - are pessimistic about the prospects. This is despite promises Beijing made to preserve Hong Kong's personality under a ``one nation, two systems'' formula when it passes to the PRC July 1, 1997.
Repeatedly, these professionals argue that a cultural chasm divides this colonial but ironically quite free society from its mainland kinsmen. It is so great that, although Chinese leaders want to maintain Hong Kong's prosperity and are painfully aware of the importance of this commercial outlet for their economy, they do not grasp the fine points that make it run.
The Chinese will inevitably destroy Hong Kong after their takeover in 1997, these professionals say wistfully. Most have made arrangements to move their families to Britain, Australia, Canada, or the United States.
One longtime foreign resident argues that Beijing's lack of understanding even characterizes the 600-man Xin Hua office, the Chinese news agency, which acts as a ``shadow government.'' Furthermore, another ironic fact of life is increasing conflict between Beijing and the colony's left-wing political groups who, since the Chinese Communist takeover on the mainland a half-century ago, have been Beijing's chief supporters, or at least inclined to view its actions in the best light. That's because the populist forces are campaigning for extension of political reform and social welfare, most recently an old-age pension scheme proposed by Hong Kong Gov. Christopher Patten, which the PRC opposes. The Chinese Communists, again ironically, want Hong Kong preserved as a capitalist entity with no threat to its considerable governmental revenues and monetary reserves.
There are, of course, powerful forces working for an orderly transfer of power and continued Hong Kong prosperity. Many of the colony's major capitalists are major investors on the mainland, and, in so far as economic issues are concerned, are the eyes and ears of some of Beijing's politicians and technocrats. Conversely, although heavily cloaked in secrecy, Chinese Communist ``capitalists'' - some of the multimillionaires, corrupt bureaucrats, sons and daughters of Communist leaders, and even high-ranking members of the People's Liberation Army - are big Hong Kong investors. The corruption is so convoluted that Hong Kong companies are organized by PRC citizens to invest in the Chinese mainland.
Mr. Patten, formerly chairman of Britain's Conservative Party, a close friend, and until recently, collaborator of British Prime Minister John Major, has complicated the transition by insisting on an extension, however limited, of the franchise to Hong Kong's Legislative Council - a largely appointed legislative arm. Beijing has announced that it will void Patten's reforms when it takes over and has initially opposed the pension plan.
How the Hong Kong takeover goes may depend on coincidences in the next three years. Will the death of Deng Xiaoping, China's 90-year-old ``paramount leader'' and advocate - despite enormous opposition inside the Communist Party for a pragmatic approach to economic development - fall before or after the deadline? Will there be an ensuing struggle for power in which Hong Kong will become an issue? Will growing inflation in China bring on a deteriorating mainland economy and possible crisis, as it did for the Nationalists 50 years ago? Will the growing independence of China's huge regions - especially Guangdong and Fujian Provinces, where almost all the current Chinese prosperity is located - continue without civil war, or will China again see the warlordism and conflict of most of this century?
This unpredictable future poses enormous problems for US policy. The Clinton administration, through Winston Lord, the assistant secretary for Northeast Asian Affairs, has made optimistic assumptions. Mr. Lord has argued for a policy based not only on a belief in a continued rising prosperity in this part of the world but of rapid economic development as the principal incentive for a democratic society. This policy ignores the long history of ``irrational'' political decisions of these regimes, the fears of Communist elites of the threat to their power during such a transformation, and the long history of dependence on American initiatives and protection among non-Communist Asians since the end of World War II. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.