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Afraid or Confident, Most Staying in Hong Kong : Southeast Asia: About 1,000 do leave each week despite China's promise of maintaining status quo after 1997. But most either are unable to flee or choose not to.

December 25, 1991|DAVID HOLLEY and CHRISTINE COURTNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONG KONG — Shop clerk Chow Hon-wing, 39, sounded almost proud when asked how he felt about China's scheduled 1997 takeover of this British colony.

"I'm confident. I am Chinese," he said, as if that explained everything. "Hong Kong is returning to the motherland. I'm not rich, so why should I worry? I have nothing to offer the Chinese government. I am only a poor worker."

Beauty shop owner Jean Yang had a different view.

"I can sum up my feelings in one word: frightened, " Yang said. "Look at what China has done previously. They can't be trusted."

Most Hong Kong residents are refugees from communism or the children of refugees. They know how stagnation struck Shanghai after the 1949 Communist revolution. They know about the destruction inflicted across China by Chairman Mao Tse-tung's chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. They have vivid images of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, when the Chinese army moved against pro-democracy protesters in Tian An Men Square.

Despite China's promise to maintain Hong Kong's civil liberties and capitalist system for at least 50 years after 1997, a steady flow of about 1,000 worried Hong Kong residents leaves the colony every week for new lives overseas.

But the great majority of Hong Kong's 5.8 million people are neither able to flee nor desirous of doing so. Most Hong Kong residents simply like the place--its spectacularly beautiful harbor and mountains, its superb food, inexpensive shopping and good employment opportunities--too much to want to leave. And while very few think highly of communism, most feel a streak of Chinese patriotism.

"The future looks good," declared Flora Tam, 43, a mother of four who sells shoes at a downtown alleyway stall. "I don't want to think terrible thoughts. What good would it do me anyway? I want to continue my life in Hong Kong."

Tam said that her cousins, who own the stall at which she works, are "afraid of losing everything" and that they plan to move to the United States.

"But my husband and I are poor," Tam said. "My husband is a policeman, and I am a saleswoman. How can we leave Hong Kong when we don't have enough money? Besides, I love Hong Kong."

Tam also expressed confidence that a successor generation of Chinese leaders will be more liberal and open-minded than the old men who now rule in Beijing.

"Deng Xiaoping will die, and a younger man will take control of China," Tam said. "This will ease relations between China and Hong Kong and help maintain Beijing's promise of 'one country, two systems.' "

Some rich businessmen are among the most prominent advocates of friendly relations with Beijing. But it is not unusual for ordinary working people to view prospects for the future in class terms, with the greatest risk faced by the wealthy.

"I have no fears because I am not a rich man," said Herbert Lau, 39, owner of an insurance company. "Rich people have many worries because they do not want to share their money with the people that have political power."

Vicki Li, 15, a high school student, knows that Beijing has promised not to change Hong Kong. But she doesn't quite believe it--and seems to think that communism may literally be on its way.

"The upper class in Hong Kong doesn't want China to take over because the Chinese government will force them to pay more taxes," Vicki said. "The system in China right now is that if you don't have a job, you still have money to spend and food to eat. If this sort of system is applied to Hong Kong, the poor will benefit by having a full stomach, but the rich will suffer by paying more taxes."

Vicki believes that the Hong Kong in which she will grow up will lose many of its liberties.

"If we look at the Chinese people, they have no freedom," she said. "The Chinese government . . . denies its citizens the freedom to speak, write, study and vote."

Her dream, if she could control history, would be for Hong Kong to become an independent country, she said.

"I would also like to see China's rulers become more open-minded and honest," she added.

Such teen-age views reflect the conversation of adults.

Tam, the basically optimistic alleyway shop clerk, also foresees an erosion of civil liberties.

"I think there will be increasingly less freedom as we approach the year 2000," she predicted. "It will take at least that long for the Chinese government to implement their control. I believe the Chinese government wants to control freedom of speech and press."

Optimism about the economic future and pessimism about intellectual freedom are common themes.

Tse Lai-hing, 22, like many Hong Kong residents, expressed a belief that agreement between London and Beijing on construction of a massive new airport bodes well for future prosperity.

"It is important because it will give new energy to Hong Kong," said Tse, a post-graduate student at Hong Kong University. "The new airport also brings confidence."

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