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A Nervous Time for Hong Kong : China's behavior causes unrest as takeover date approaches

July 07, 1996

With less than a year to go before Britain returns Hong Kong to China, uncertainty engulfs the island, with many Hong Kong residents securing foreign passports and transferring investments abroad. The reason for the hedging is Beijing's mercurial behavior.

Despite its promise to follow a "one country, two systems" approach for 50 years, Beijing has unsettled Hong Kong through a number of its actions. Among these is its indication that it will reject Hong Kong's newly elected legislative council and scuttle all the laws the council has passed, including a bill of rights ordinance. Beijing plans to replace the legislature with an appointed body, which could reinstate repressive laws.

All this is prompting many among the island's 6.2 million residents to protest, and this emergent political activism is making China apprehensive. Beijing had hoped to acquire Hong Kong as it existed back in 1984 when agreement was reached with Britain for return of the island. But that was before China's bloody crackdown on demonstrators at Tianamen Square in 1989 and before the 1992 arrival of Chris Patten, who as Hong Kong's colonial governor helped to expand democratic participation in the territory's elections.

An unhappy Beijing has handpicked members for the Preparatory Committee, which will assist in the transition from British rule. For the most part, China is keeping its plans for next year secret. On the business front Beijing has pressured some prominent companies in Hong Kong to sell part of their holdings to organizations run by the Chinese state.

There also has been a chilling of the Hong Kong press, once one of the freest and liveliest in Asia but now under pressure to stay away from criticism of China. Mainland companies are refusing to advertise in publications thought to be unfriendly to China. In a disturbing affront to freedom of the press, Xi Yang, a mainland Chinese writing for a Hong Kong paper, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for reporting economic statistics considered state secrets.

Beijing hopes Hong Kong will be a prototype for Chinese incorporation of Taiwan at some point in the future. Taipei and the rest of the world is watching. Heavy-handedness by Beijing surely will disrupt Hong Kong's vibrant and pragmatic blend of Chinese and Western cultures.

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