A Smooth Transition for Hong Kong?

There will be no forked lightning, no clap of thunder on June 30 when Hong Kong is transformed from crown colony to special administrative region.

Britain's lease is expiring, and the old landlord is coming back as the People's Republic of China. To some, it is a fearsome prospect, the capitalist money machine swallowed up by the communist dragon. But Hong Kong today is not in retreat. It is booming, as before. The inevitable has been judged acceptable.

A year ago the mood was different. People mistrusted Beijing's assurance that Hong Kong would be governed by Hong Kongers and have a "high degree of autonomy" for at least 50 years. For many years some sought to escape before the worst overtook them. But, as the months passed, there has been no new exodus of people or money. In fact, doubters have returned and new funds have poured in. Cranes everywhere insert new pencil skyscrapers into the hillside above the fabulous harbor. The biggest airport in Asia goes into service next year. An enormous new suspension bridge will connect it with the mainland. What is already the world's largest container port is being expanded.

Britain's farewell feast

Continued prosperity has eased tense nerves. Job opportunities, filling thick sections of newspapers, betoken a labor shortage. The budget is in surplus. China stresses continuity. The clich of choice is that Beijing does not want to kill the goose that lays such golden eggs. Certainly, it knows that its treatment of Hong Kong under the motto "one country, two systems" is a test case for reunion with Taiwan.

It is also aware that the future of Hong Kong will be followed intently by governments and investors in nations with which China wants to do business. The stakes are high. Britain alone has $100 billion invested in Hong Kong, and the US more than $10 billion. Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are to be on hand for the transfer, in an assembly of world leaders.

The proceedings, both sides say, will be solemn and dignified; no bathos of reconciliation. Britain starts the evening. The Prince of Wales hosts a farewell dinner for thousands. A bagpipe band of the Black Watch, flown in for the occasion, adds a touch of nostalgia. There are barely enough British troops left to stage a tattoo. Then, after some fireworks, on the stroke of midnight, the British flag comes down and the prince, together with Gov. Christopher Patten, helicopters out to the royal yacht Britannia ready to quietly take them home.

China's leaders will not be present. They will come as China's flag is immediately raised. President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng will be there by right - not at Britain's invitation - to install their chosen chief executive and his government. What follows is to be the grandmother of all fireworks displays by the people who invented them.

July 1 will be a national holiday. July 2 will be more significant as the first marker of change. It is agreed: A Chinese military garrison moves in but the Hong Kong police maintain law and order as before. Bureaucrats, bankers, businessmen, housewives, shopkeepers, workers, and schoolchildren go about their daily lives. The Hong Kong dollar remains the internationally recognized separate currency linked to the US dollar. Laws and the justice system operate as before. English remains the official language.

Helping to smooth the transition, China's relations with the British administration, frozen in mutual loathing over the past few years, have visibly thawed. China accuses the outgoing governor of undermining Britain's 1984 commitment to preserve the status quo. He has actively promoted human rights and democracy since he took office in 1992. Mr. Patten has denounced Beijing for intending to disband the newly elected legislature and repeal its laws on freedom of assembly and association.

Here, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the future. Economically, Hong Kong and China are essentially in harmony. Politically, they speak a different language. In Hong Kong, the strict rule of law has given free enterprise the security to flower so fully. In China, commerce is warped by political intervention, favoritism, and corruption. Will this infect the new special region? China's People's Liberation Army is economically almost a state within a state. Will it be curbed in Hong Kong?

A taste for freedom

The colony has developed a strong taste for individual freedom. In 1989, a million people assembled to condemn China's suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen square. Since then, protest demonstrations have marked each anniversary. Will there be one this June? The climate has clearly changed. People may worry about reprisals in July. Would China, next year, give Hong Kong a permission which it denies at home?

Revoking freedom of association is equally disturbing. China could forbid international contact with organizations that form the fabric of civil society, such as church groups, philatelists, chess and bridge clubs, the World Wildlife Federation, and Amnesty International.

Nothing has been said about freedom of the press and of expression, but China may be expected to move against opposition with all economic and legal means. Its power will be enough to make prudent people trim their sails. This has worked in Singapore. Why not in Hong Kong? A degree of self-censorship seems to many here to be a price worth paying for an orderly life and an adequate living - at least for a time.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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