Hong Kong: Next Door and Eight Years Away

Hong Kong demands greater freedom for China -- and itself

  • Share
  • Read Later

The inhabitants of Hong Kong usually reserve their deepest passions for business, not politics. But last week, in the largest and most emotional outburst ever seen in the British colony, more than 500,000 demonstrators marched through Hong Kong's narrow streets, waving pro-democracy banners and singing anthems like We Shall Overcome. Including the spectators who cheered and applauded, an estimated 1 million people, one-sixth of Hong Kong's populace, turned out to proclaim their support for the embattled students in China.

The unprecedented outcry reflected Hong Kong's growing anxiety over its return to China in 1997. A sleek modern city on the South China Sea, Hong Kong has become a hotbed of capitalism during 147 years of British rule. But Britain's sovereignty is set to run out under an Anglo-Chinese agreement reached in 1984. Now Hong Kong's residents, the vast majority of whom are descendants of refugees from the mainland, scrutinize the crisis in China for clues to the fate of the colony under Communist control. Declared a banner that Hong Kong students carried last week: TODAY'S CHINA IS TOMORROW'S HONG KONG.

Such forebodings have caused Hong Kong to react sharply to each twist and turn in the power struggle next door. The Hang Seng index, the main indicator of value of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, swung wildly throughout the week. After dropping nearly 11% on Monday, the index rose 9.3% the next day on signs that the Chinese crisis might be easing. But the continued unrest in China led to further whipsawing that left the index at 2765.67 when trading ended Friday, down a substantial 12% for the week.

While the stock market gyrated, the turmoil in China disrupted efforts to draft the Basic Law, which will serve as Hong Kong's constitution after 1997. Talks between Chinese and Hong Kong negotiators have been under way since 1985. But two key Hong Kong representatives -- Louis Cha, publisher of the Ming Pao newspaper group, and Anglican Bishop Peter Kwong -- quit the 55- member drafting committee after Beijing declared martial law.

The walkouts forced suspension of the delicate talks. Hong Kong negotiators said they were "temporarily unable to carry out our work as planned" because events in China "have done great damage to the Hong Kong people's confidence in the Basic Law." A preoccupied Beijing canceled a scheduled visit to the colony by Ji Pengfei, who heads China's office of Hong Kong and Macao affairs. Once discussions resume, Hong Kong is certain to bargain harder than ever for protection of its rights.

Half a world away, Britain watched the strife in China with acute concern. Nonetheless, the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher intends to uphold its pledge to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule. "We cannot back away from the 1984 agreement," said a senior British diplomat. "We have signed it, and we are committed to it." Said another high official: "Once the situation settles down in China, it could be for the better. If the reformers do come out on top, that would be more promising for Hong Kong's future." By week's end, however, the liberal reformers appeared to be in retreat.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2