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Hong Kong Acts to Stem Exodus Before Takeover


HONG KONG — Raymond Lau says it was the violence of last June's crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing that made him decide it would be wise to get out of Hong Kong before July 1, 1997.

On that day, by agreement between London and Beijing, China will resume sovereignty over this freewheeling British colony. Just what will happen then, no one can say for sure. But after June's bloodshed in Beijing, Lau fears the worst.

"It was terrible, what happened," Lau said while visiting the Canadian Consulate here, where he had gone to find out about immigration rules. "I don't know what Hong Kong will look like after 1997. I'm afraid the policy about human rights may change."

Lau, a 35-year-old surveyor, is not alone. Every week, about 1,000 people leave for new lives overseas.

Yet Hong Kong does not look like a city facing doom. At noisy construction sites, office towers claw their way skyward. Soaring over all is the new, 70-story Bank of China building, designed by the American architect I. M. Pei as a symbol of Chinese modernization.

Hong Kong's prosperous face reflects its status as the gateway to China and its growing integration with industries across the border.

"I'm optimistic because of the role Hong Kong could continue to play in the development of China," said Leung Chun-ying, an executive with the real estate consulting firm of Jones Lang Wootton. "Despite what happened in May and June, I think the country is still moving in the right direction."

Most people here agree that Beijing, in promising that Hong Kong can maintain its capitalist system and free society for at least 50 years, hopes to preserve the city's prosperity.

Doubts revolve around whether the Communists know how to do this, however. Do Beijing's leaders understand the link between freedom and wealth? Will they provide the assurances needed to prevent a debilitating brain drain? What guarantees do Hong Kong's people really have?

These questions give rise to debate about what should be done to encourage people like Raymond Lau to stay and to reassure them that if they do, their fears will not come true.

One plan, endorsed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, aims at stemming the brain drain by offering British citizenship, paradoxically, to 50,000 key individuals whose contributions are deemed most important to Hong Kong's continued prosperity. Their dependents would also be given British passports, adding up to a total of about 225,000 people expected to be covered by the plan if the British Parliament approves it.

In theory, the great majority of these selected officials, entrepreneurs and professionals would prefer to remain in Hong Kong and will do so if they have British passports allowing them to resettle in Britain if things go badly under Chinese rule. Without such protection, the theory goes, many more would seek Canadian, Australian or American citizenship before 1997--a choice that would require them to leave Hong Kong in the next few years.

Another plan, favored by liberal activists, calls for rapid transition to more representative government in Hong Kong, which under Britain has civil liberties but no self-rule. Leaders like Martin Lee, a prominent campaigner for democratic reform, argue that this is the best way to strengthen the voice of Hong Kong's people in their dealings with Beijing and thus increase the chances of preserving the freedoms essential to prosperity.

Plans agreed to by London and Beijing call for gradual implementation of moderate democratic reform, including the direct election of some members of the Legislative Council.

But under these plans--and under the Hong Kong Basic Law, the constitution that Beijing approved this month and which is to take effect in 1997--ultimate power remains in the hands of Hong Kong's governor, and after July 1, 1997, Beijing will control this post.

Lee is among those who argue that the Basic Law does not go far enough to reassure the 5.8 million people of Hong Kong that their rights will be protected.

Others argue that democratic self-rule is unimportant and that the key to a good future lies in accommodation with Beijing. Many of these people are business leaders, and in the parlance of local politics, they are usually called conservatives.

"By and large, the Basic Law will serve the long-term interests of Hong Kong," said Leung, the real estate consultant, who is a prominent advocate of the conservative viewpoint. "Hong Kong's future, in terms of stability and prosperity, depends very heavily on our relationship with China, from daily necessities, food supply and water supply up to economic development. A lot depends on how we manage our relationship with China."

The June 4 crackdown in Beijing was "a very sad event," Leung said, adding: "One would hope that China would do its best not to frighten Hong Kong people any more."

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