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The Vanishing Border : As 1997 Approaches, Is China Taking Over Hong Kong or Vice Versa?

August 04, 1991|Daniela Deane | Daniela Deane, who lives in Hong Kong, writes about south China for the Washington Post.

A HEAVY MIST HUGS THE GROUND along the Sham Chun River on the border between Hong Kong and China. A hunched-over Chinese woman in a cone-shaped straw hat emerges from a foggy patch on the Hong Kong side and sidles up to a small hole in the fence. Through it she pushes several cans of beer, a few bottles of shampoo and some bars of soap. A man on the other side stuffs the items into a plastic bag, slips some money back through the hole and sets off in his sampan up the river toward China.

"They're just doing what Hong Kong's big companies are doing--trading, but on a smaller scale," says Police Chief Inspector Stuart Jones. "It's illegal, but it's so small that we don't do anything about it."

The man in the sampan will resell the goods in China, where quality products are rare. He is one of about 2,000 mainland Chinese whose ancestral farmland was bisected when the border was drawn in 1898 and who are allowed free travel around the closed frontier area.

Since Hong Kong was founded 150 years ago by British merchants swapping opium for tea with Chinese mandarins, its lifeblood has been its trade with the mainland, still the colony's major trading partner. The staggering amount of to-and-fro is unmistakable at the Man Kam To crossing, which about 11,000 trucks and cars traverse daily in bumper-to-bumper traffic, making it one of the world's busiest international land-vehicle connection points. Ninety percent are trucks carrying watches, toys, appliances, clothes and electronic goods from Hong Kong-owned factories in southern China to the British colony for export. Because Hong Kong depends on its northern neighbor for most of its food and water, trains from China arrive full of livestock and vegetables. And some 27 million people cross the border each year at the Lo Wu railway station--probably the busiest international passenger crossing in the world. During the Chinese New Year holidays, more than 100,000 a day pass through.

At midnight on June 30, 1997, the link between the two regions will be formalized as Hong Kong, one of the world's most successful and freewheeling capitalist economies, is handed back to China under a 1984 agreement with no parallel in human history. Beijing promises in its accord with London that Hong Kong can retain its capitalist way of life for 50 years after the takeover.

But now, six years before the hand-over date, the Hong Kong-China border is disappearing. In many ways and at a dizzying pace, China already is extending its tentacles into the British colony perched on its southern coast. This premature intervention is viewed by many as Beijing making a mockery of its promise to keep its hands off the colony until 2047. At the same time, the Hong Kong Chinese--most of them refugees or the offspring of refugees who fled communism--are moving back into their homeland, bringing a capitalist influence so vast it is certain to alter China forever. More and more, 1997 is becoming a mere formality.

ENNIS AND KENNETH TING LANDED IN Hong Kong from Shanghai when they were young boys, fleeing the communist takeover of China with their family. The boys' father was one of the richest industrialists in the swinging, capitalist Shanghai of the 1930s, a flashlight manufacturer employing 3,000 workers.

Ting Senior started over in Hong Kong. The company he formed in 1949, Kader Industries, has become one of the largest toy manufacturers in the colony. It employs 13,000 workers, the majority in factories in southern China.

Kader's toys are exported, mostly to the United States for merchandising by such U.S. firms as Hasbro and Mattel. In 1985, Kader exported 20 million Cabbage Patch dolls to the United States. "All the major American toy companies have offices in Hong Kong," says Dennis Ting, now chairman of the company.

Toy samples, pilot runs and molds--processes that require flexibility and expertise--are made at the company's high-tech factory in Hong Kong, using highly sophisticated computerized equipment. All the mass production--of those millions of Cabbage Patch dolls--occurs at the company's seven factories in mainland China, where Kader employs about 10,000 people, 98% of them Chinese peasant women between the ages of 17 and 25.

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