HONG KONG — Ever since China's 1949 revolution, this British colony has been a tiny bastion of capitalism perched incongruously at the edge of an authoritarian Communist giant.
Viewed by some as an outpost of freedom, by others as a colonial wart on the socialist face of China, Hong Kong has survived because it served China's interests.
Now, as the colony looks toward 1997, when it will revert to Chinese sovereignty under the formula "one country, two systems," Hong Kong is torn by an acrimonious debate over how to ensure its future.
On one side are activists favoring rapid democratic reform. They believe that only in this way can Hong Kong, which under Britain enjoys freedom but not self-rule, have a chance to resist undue interference from Beijing after 1997.
Focus on Direct Elections
Arrayed against them are many business leaders who place more faith in the old formula of being valuable to China.
In recent months, the battle between these two political groups has focused on whether there should be direct elections this year for some seats on the Legislative Council. The 56-seat council, which is very weak in relation to the British-appointed governor, is currently selected by a complex system that combines appointments and indirect elections. Some legislators are elected by their peers in professional, industry or business groups, while others are chosen by neighborhood boards.
The Hong Kong government is due to announce today whether some seats on the council will be filled by direct elections this year. Observers say there is every sign the government will bow to objections from Beijing and rule out even a token election.
To Conrad Lam, a liberal activist on the council, the basic issue involves far more than the fate of the 5.5 million people of Hong Kong, 98% of them ethnic Chinese. Lam dreams of a unified, prosperous, democratic China comprised of the territory now controlled by the People's Republic of China plus Hong Kong, the Portuguese colony of Macao and the island of Taiwan, refuge of the Chinese Nationalists since their 1949 defeat. Democracy in Hong Kong, he said in a recent interview, would be an important step toward this goal.
Only through democratic institutions based on direct elections can Hong Kong defend its right to the "high degree of autonomy" promised by Beijing, Lam said.
A prosperous and democratic Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty could not only help to draw Taiwan into a negotiated settlement with Beijing, but also would serve as an alternative model for all of China, he said.
Leung Chun-ying, spokesman for a prominent group of businessmen and professionals who favor a system based more on interest-group representation, said that it is a mistake to believe that direct elections and full democracy would benefit Hong Kong.
Leung disparaged such an approach as based on what he described as a discredited old slogan: "Min zhu fan gong," or "Use democracy to resist communism."
"That would be the least effective means of resisting Communist intervention," Leung said. "If anything, it would probably antagonize the Beijing government."
Andrew W. F. Wong, a lecturer in government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who also serves on the Legislative Council, said he believes that "both groups want the best for Hong Kong" but clashes between them "have made it impossible for them to see eye to eye."
"The business and professional group people suspect that the liberal camp wants to install a power in Hong Kong which is counter and confrontational to Chinese rule, and in the political reality of Hong Kong, China is so strong and so near that you can't really do anything about it, so in the end (this would) wreck it all," Wong said.
"Secondly, they suspect that the liberals are trying to introduce a free-lunch society, a welfare society, which is not to the benefit of Hong Kong because no society can ever afford free lunches," he added.
The liberal camp, for its part, tends to suspect the business and professional group "of wanting to preserve their own power, their influence and their prestigious positions by being able to be appointed . . . to various key advisory committees of the Hong Kong government and the legislature," Wong said.
"Secondly, the liberals suspect that the business and professional group is playing up to China, as China is becoming more and more important, not only as a political force, but as an economic force," he said.