In Beijing's Tiananmen Square, a huge clock is counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds remaining until midnight on June 30. At that moment, 155 years of British rule and Chinese ignominy will come to an end in the coastal city of Hong Kong. Britain's Prince Charles, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and an estimated 9,000 journalists will be on hand to watch as the Union Jack is lowered for the last time, amid fireworks and revelry.
But for all the expected hoopla, the transfer of rule in Hong Kong has produced a measure of anxiety among many of the city's 6.3 million residents. Hong Kong, after all, is not just the most open business environment in the world. It also is a free city in other ways, with an elected legislature, civil liberties and a style of life more akin to Los Angeles than Beijing. Western freedoms are largely unknown in mainland China and, more importantly, are frowned upon by Chinese leaders.
“Hong Kong is cosmopolitan, integrated into the world, [while] China is insular, self-absorbed and not integrated into the international system,” says David Shambaugh, a professor of international relations at George Washington University.
These differences were supposedly taken into account when Britain and China negotiated the transfer of power in 1984. The agreement, known as the Joint Declaration, required China to maintain Hong Kong's basic economic and political freedoms for 50 years. In essence, Hong Kong and China would, in an oft-quoted phrase, be “one country with two systems.”
But the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square cast doubts on China's commitment to honor the Joint Declaration.
The fears were not unfounded. Beijing has already established an unelected provisional legislature that will replace Hong Kong's elected council.
In addition, the Chinese-appointed chief executive, Hong Kong shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa, in April announced a package of measures that would restrict the rights of citizens to assemble and protest. Limits would also be imposed on political parties. In particular, political organizations would not be able to raise money abroad, a proposal aimed at powerful overseas Chinese communities, many of which have supported pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
But Martin Lee, who heads the largest party in Hong Kong's legislature, says that “we already have the proper balance” between order and freedom. According to Lee, protests in Hong Kong have never been anything but peaceful. “We do not throw Molotov cocktails.” '
Politics is not the only aspect of city life that may change under the new regime. Even Hong Kong's much-vaunted economy may be tinkered with a bit, a surprising development given the city's reputation as a haven for business. In fact, Hong Kong, with its low tax rates and highly regarded bureaucracy, is often considered to be the best place in the world to do business. Hong Kong is Asia's leading financial center and the world's busiest port. If Hong Kong were a country, it would be the eighth-largest trading nation in the world.
But recently, economic advisers to Tung have proposed steps that would inject the government into the economy. One proposal would encourage, through direct spending and tax breaks, the development of certain industries in the city, notably high-technology manufacturing. Some experts fear that if that happens, Hong Kong's largely service- oriented economy will no longer be such a rich source of wealth and jobs.
For all of China's proposed changes, Hong Kong's future remains unclear. But one thing is certain: China views the handover of Hong Kong as a highly important event. “The return symbolizes the end of what the Chinese like to call the end of the century of shame and humiliation,” Shambaugh says. “This is not simply getting back a wayward territory that happened to get away,” he adds, but the final chapter in China's long experience with Western imperialism.
Many China-watchers think that, by and large, the Chinese understand that Hong Kong's success is tied to its uniqueness. “On the whole, China will try to keep its commitments,” writes Frank Ching, an editor at the Far Eastern Economic Review. After all, China did not spend years ironing out the Joint Declaration and other Sino-British agreements over Hong Kong “with the idea that it would tear them all up on July 1.”