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The Last Tycoon : Businessman Gordon Wu Is Building a Road to China -- and Betting His Fortune, and Hong Kong's, on the Outcome.

March 15, 1992|JIM MANN | Jim Mann, former Times bureau chief in Beijing, is a Times staff writer in Washington.

GORDON WU IS ENJOYING HIMSELF. ON THIS HAZY spring day he has journeyed in his chauffeur-driven royal-blue Rolls-Royce from his 66-story headquarters in Wanchai, on Hong Kong Island, through the tunnel underneath the harbor to a modest classroom building in Kowloon. He has already patiently answered the questions, in both English and Cantonese, of about 15 Hong Kong reporters and cameramen who surrounded his car as it pulled up to the curb. When one straggling TV reporter who missed this show pleaded for help in matching his competitors, Wu happily obliged by doing the interview all over again.

Now Wu is holding forth to a group of visiting business-school students from Pittsburgh about one of his favorite subjects: what will happen to Hong Kong when China takes control of the colony from the United Kingdom in 1997.

Wu, 56, is one of Hong Kong's richest businessmen. He is building a mass-transit system for Bangkok that may one day ease that city's clogged traffic. His donations to his alma mater, Princeton University, have put him on the map of American philanthropy. And most important, with his development company, Hopewell Holdings Ltd., he is the biggest single foreign investor in China and the sponsor of a mammoth effort to build South China's first expressway, a six-lane toll road from Hong Kong through the heart of dynamic Guangdong province to Canton. For good measure, Wu last year was at the center of Hong Kong's hottest political firestorm, siding with China against the departing British overlords in an epic struggle for control of a new airport.

The American students proceed to quiz Wu about the expressway, the airport, his Bangkok plans and his other business projects around East Asia. But most of all, they want to know whether the capitalist free-for-all known as Hong Kong can survive into the next century.

"You want to know the future?" says Wu, his voice brimming with confidence. "I can tell you." The Americans lean forward in their chairs. "I think that in six years and two months we'll have a changing of the flag, and the British will play their favorite music, called 'Beat a Retreat'--except that this time it will be for real."

Wu pauses, teasing his audience.

"And Hong Kong will just go on as usual."

The students laugh.

Calm? Yes. Self-assured? Yes. Yet a day later, for just a fleeting moment in the privacy of his office, Wu's guard drops and his heady self-confidence melts away as he ponders the difficulties of doing business with Beijing, the dark side of a nation eager for prosperity but still caught in the grip of ideology and repression.

Wu is talking about former Chinese Premier and Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. On the wall opposite Wu's desk hangs a photograph from a happier time. It shows the dumpy, slightly round-shouldered Wu, and a few other Hong Kong businessmen and Chinese officials, leaning respectfully toward a smiling Zhao.

Throughout the decade of the 1980s, Zhao served as the principal supporter and patron in Beijing for Wu's Hong Kong-Canton expressway. The dapper Chinese leader and the blunt-talking Hong Kong businessman had met in Beijing on numerous occasions. After the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in China, however, Zhao was dismissed from the party leadership and placed under house arrest. While the restrictions have been eased somewhat since that time, some of his top aides remain either imprisoned or in exile.

A visitor asks Wu if has been able to see Zhao during his trips to Beijing over the past two years. "No, no," he replies quickly. Then, with a laugh, he adds nervously: "Someday I might ask for that. You see, I don't know politics that well, so I don't want to get mangled in it. . . ."

Wu carefully emphasizes that the expressway is still going forward, that he knows many other top Chinese leaders--including President Yang Shangkun and Premier Li Peng, the men who have come to dominate Beijing in the repressive years since Zhao's downfall.

"With China's top leadership, I find that they are OK individually," Wu explains, and then that little bit of doubt creeps into his voice. "But somehow, when it comes to the party line, there is something that I don't understand."

GORDON WU IS THE LIVING SYMBOL OF HONG KONG'S current desperate gamble. He, more than anyone else, represents the hope that Chinese pragmatism will triumph over ideology; that capitalism will triumph over socialism; that money will win out over Confucian graces and politesse; and that, in China's never-ending regional struggles, the hustling, apolitical spirit of Canton will outlast the dictates of the mandarins of Beijing.

The odds might seem encouraging. In 1984, China and Britain reached an agreement returning Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. It guarantees the preservation of the colony's capitalist economy, its civil liberties and legal system for 50 years after the changeover from British rule.

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