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Hong Kong thrives under China

In the 10 years since the transfer, the mainland has seen more change than the territory, now an economic model.

July 01, 2007|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — On the day 10 years ago that this longtime British colony returned to Chinese rule, even the sky seemed to be crying over the territory's uncertain future.

The heavens opened as the old colonial masters waved their farewells and sailed away on the ship Britannia. Crowds lingered under umbrellas during the fireworks display that lighted up Victoria Harbor. At daybreak, another downpour drenched the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army as they crossed the border.

By that wet summer, half a million people had fled Hong Kong in search of safer harbors and foreign passports. But a decade after China's red five-star flag replaced the Union Jack on July 1, 1997, much of the worry about Hong Kong's demise has dissipated like so many ominous thunderclouds.

Mostly left alone by a giant communist motherland busy undergoing its own metamorphosis, Hong Kong is thriving as a beacon of capitalism. The "one country, two systems" formula designed to preserve Hong Kong's freedoms and way of life for 50 years appears to be working, give or take a bit of muscle-flexing by Beijing.

In many ways, the last 10 years have been a testament to how much China has changed and Hong Kong has stayed the same.

"The concept of isolating Hong Kong's capitalist ways from China's socialism did not work in the way people thought it would work," said Michael DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University, who has conducted extensive opinion polls in the territory. "China has utterly failed to change Hong Kong in their direction."

Instead, China has become more like Hong Kong -- economically speaking, at least.

When the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was plotting the return of the colony in the early 1980s, China had just cracked open the doors of a closed communist society where people worshiped Mao Tse-tung and bought food with ration tickets. Hong Kongers, with their business savvy and materialistic sensibilities, were considered spiritual contaminants.

Today, China is a capitalist paradise where making money is the new religion and communism in many ways is just a name. The country has joined the World Trade Organization, modified its Constitution to protect private property and allowed entrepreneurs to join the Communist Party.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is not nearly as transformed. But status quo is a good thing for this open international city.

Free but not democratic

"I am still free to talk, free to read newspapers, free to make money," said Ping Lam Mak, 58, who runs a tiny stall carving Chinese names onto chops of stone in the heat of Hong Kong's central business district.

Since the return to Chinese rule, business has suffered, he said, in part because people can make everything much cheaper in mainland China. Other than that, he said, life is not so different and he's glad it has stayed that way.

"Hong Kong people care a lot about freedom," Mak said, adding that he attended all the major public protests, including one in 2003 that drew half a million people. "They don't have the same freedom on the mainland."

Contrary to the doomsayers, Beijing did not shut down the territory's free press, arrest dissidents or patrol the streets with PLA troops. But neither has Beijing been willing to grant Hong Kong full democracy, which it fears could turn the territory into a rebellious example for the rest of the country.

Hong Kong's top leader is elected by a committee of 800 mostly pro-Beijing businesspeople. Only half of the 60-member legislature is chosen by a popular vote. The timetable for universal suffrage guaranteed under the Basic Law, the territory's mini-constitution, has been pushed back indefinitely, leading critics to say that Beijing has not held up its end of the bargain to leave Hong Kong alone.

"The 'one country, two systems' promise was for Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong. Except in the areas of foreign policy and defense, everything else is up to the Hong Kong people," said Wai-hong Yeung, publisher of Next magazine, owned by outspoken China critic Jimmy Lai. "What we've seen in the last 10 years, that has not been the case."

The issue of who's in charge was made obvious once again in June by China's top legislator, who declared that it was up to Beijing to dictate Hong Kong's political future.

"Hong Kong's administrative autonomy is not intrinsic. It is granted by the central government," Wu Gangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, said in a speech in the Chinese capital marking the 10th anniversary of the transfer.

Although the quest for full democracy remains the key tussle between Hong Kong and its Chinese rulers, many here say they are relieved that Beijing has not done more to ruin the good life they had.

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