The shedding of Britain's colonies over the past half-century has generally been a cause for celebration. The consequences have not always been felicitous because colonial rule has sometimes been followed by despotic local rule. But the days are long gone when a colonial power could rule subject peoples, so the British have usually retreated with grace. The Union Jack came fluttering down, to be supplanted by the flag of a new and independent nation.
In 12 days there will be another British departure, this time from one of the last of London's colonies, Hong Kong.
This time the departure is tinged with sadness, some bitterness, and a fair amount of confusion about the future. And this time Britain is not conferring independence on a colony, but placing it under the suzerainty of China and a Communist regime.
At midnight on June 30, British rule will come to an end, and Beijing will take control. More than 8,000 reporters will witness handover ceremonies in a newly expanded convention center that dominates Hong Kong's harbor. Some 2,000 dignitaries will be on hand, reportedly including Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Britain's Prince Charles, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former US President George Bush, and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The US will be formally represented by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but she, like Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, will do some fancy political footwork to indicate American concern over China's policies in Hong Kong once acquisition is completed. She and Mr. Blair will attend the handover ceremonies but boycott the swearing in of Hong Kong's new Beijing-manipulated government.
In the last years of British rule, Gov. Chris Patten instituted modest political reforms, including a legislature with some freely elected members. Angered, Beijing appointed a 150-member preparatory committee that chose 400 delegates to serve as legislative councilors after the transition. It is this Beijing-selected body whose installation Mrs. Albright and Blair will boycott on grounds that it lacks legitimacy. Such symbols of undemocratic procedure cause concern about Hong Kong's future under Beijing's rule.
Beijing says it is committed to preserving Hong Kong's laissez-faire system, which has made it an economic power-house in Asia. Residents who believe this are keeping the stock market buoyant and real estate prices high. But about 10 percent of Hong Kong's citizens have acquired foreign passports and foreign residences to which they can flee if Beijing's rule proves too repressive.
This is the conundrum. By all that is rational, Beijing should keep Hong Kong stable, preserve its economy so valuable to the mainland, and reassure foreign watchers that it will not diminish the freedoms of expression, press, travel, and worship that citizens have enjoyed under British rule. The question is whether Beijing will refrain from imposing its political ideology on Hong Kong's 6 million residents and implementing the same restrictive human rights policies upon them as it does on its mainland citizens.
Senior US officials who have recently engaged in searching dialogue with senior Chinese officials on these issues fear the Chinese "just don't get it." Says one of the Americans: "They talk a good line. They say they understand that the world is watching and they want to preserve Hong Kong's stability. Then they take off, for instance, on the Hong Kong press and the need to discipline it, in a way that sends chills down your spine." Consequences of any Chinese misreading would be tragic. Repression, and resulting world outcry, would damage Sino-US relations and President Clinton's effort to continue most-favored-nation trade status. He is juggling a campaign to maintain economic ties and political dialogue while deploring human rights offenses.
Meanwhile, China's handling of Hong Kong is a test run for a much larger project: possible reintegration of Taiwan with the mainland. If Hong Kong goes sour, there will be little sentiment in Taiwan to explore stronger ties with Beijing. Fireworks will be a feature July 1. After that, none are wanted.
* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, spent six years as a correspondent based in Hong Kong.