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World Perspective | HONG KONG

A Look at Territory a Year After Return to Chinese Sovereignty

July 03, 1998|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Hong Kong's hand-over to China neared in 1997, The Times visited with some residents to learn of their hopes--and fears--about life under Beijing's rule. A year later, their lives have taken some unexpected turns.

ZHANG JING / Dissident

Dissident Zhang Jing knows firsthand about Chinese repression, and she didn't want to stay in Hong Kong long enough to see what would happen after Chinese rule took effect.

Now safely in the U.S., she says that when it comes to human rights, Hong Kong hasn't changed much more for the worse--but that China hasn't changed much for the better. Mainland relatives who visited her in Hong Kong are still paying the price.

First imprisoned in 1980 for her role in the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement in China, she was released and re-jailed several times during the 1980s for her persistent political activism. Zhang was finally freed in 1995, but without her "political rights," which took away her freedom to travel or even marry. She wed anyway and became pregnant, but officials demanded that she abort the "unrecognized" child. Instead, she fled to Hong Kong.

She changed her name and eventually divorced her husband after he insisted that she stop participating in political rallies.

A month before last July's hand-over, at a rally to protect the right to protest, she brought her daughter along to learn. "This is part of her civic education," she said, as Shan-Shan, then 4, sat on a friend's shoulders and chanted human rights slogans with the crowd. "I don't care what she chooses. I just want to her to have the right to choose."

As part of a political asylum program, Zhang left Hong Kong a few weeks before the hand-over and settled in New York. She has remarried and has a job at a Chinese newspaper.

"For the first time, I feel safe," she said by telephone. "I can express myself without any restrictions. I have normal worries now, not about being sent to prison, but about how busy my job is."

Zhang said she is encouraged by Hong Kong's relative freedom but wonders whether China's noninterference is a matter of discretion or distraction.

TSANG YOK-SING / Pro-China Politician

As the leader of the most prominent pro-China political party, Tsang Yok-sing has long spoken for Beijing in Hong Kong.

But in the past year, the former school principal has edged away from the party line to join the most unlikely of allies--the opposition Democrats--to press for action on the economy, and even democracy.

Under Hong Kong's Constitution, the government will decide after 2007 when the territory will be ready for an elected leader and fully elected legislature.

"Some of my colleagues will express very strong objections to speeding up democracy," Tsang said. "But if there is consensus among Hong Kong people that we should speed up the process, then my party should support it."

The two flanks of the political spectrum were brought even closer by the unsparing impact of the ailing economy; the coalition's pressure helped push the government to announce an unprecedented $4.1-billion rescue package.

"Before the hand-over, people expected any doom to come from the political situation," Tsang said. "But it came from the economic situation. No one expected that."

With such pragmatic moves, Tsang may emerge to represent the reality of Hong Kong--a balance between the fire-breathing idealism of the Democrats and the conservatism of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

But it's a surprising shift from the man once regarded as the democratic camp's main antagonist.

After his party was aced out of most races by the Democrats in 1995 elections, Tsang led the charge to change the system to end the Democrats' domination.

The result was a new electoral system that gave his party 10 seats compared to the democratic bloc's 20.

Despite the economic doldrums, Tsang senses a kind of post-colonial relief in Hong Kong. "The biggest change is that the British are no longer our masters," he said.

NORMAN QUAN / Businessman

Financial controller Norman Quan has always been careful about his projections, especially when the investment is a personal stake in the success of Hong Kong, where he grew up. But a year after the hand-over, he thinks that he overestimated Hong Kong.

In 1994, he left Los Angeles for Hong Kong to ride its booming economy and to be part of its historic return to the motherland. "My parents thought I was crazy," he said last year. "But I told them, 'I love the States, but my heart is still in Hong Kong and China.' "

Two weeks before the one-year anniversary, he was preparing to go back to Los Angeles, disappointed by a deep downturn in the economy and disillusioned by the corruption he sees seeping into the territory from China.

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