Wednesday, October 8, 1997

Hong Kong SAR after 100 Days

Before the handover of Hong Kong, the West, ranging from such prestigious publications as The Economist and Fortune to tenuous sources not qualified to make predictions but did anyway, was uniformly certain about Hong Kong's dismal future. The economy would collapse, dissidents arrested, printing press shutdown were among the dire predictions. Now that Hong Kong has reverted to China for more than 100 days, it's time to review and see if there are any changes and telltale signs of doom.

Since the handover, the new Chief Executive, C.H. Tung, has visited the heads of state of Malaysia, Singapore and the U.S. He was not accompanied by the respective ambassador from China to those countries. He acted alone. In the old days when the British appointed governor made similar calls, he was always accompanied by the respective British ambassador. This is one clearly visible change.

Li Peng, Prime Minister of China, visits Hong Kong in September to attend the World Bank/IMF conference. He is loudly booed by demonstrators whose sympathy lies with the Tiananmen protest and dissidents. The Hong Kong police makes no move to quell the protest.

Wei Yung has been invited to serve as adviser to a newly formed think tank, Hong Kong Policy Research Institute. Wei is a former member of Kuomingtang's Central Committee, former cabinet official, and former chancellor of KMT party school, Sun Yat Sen Institute. KMT, in case anybody doesn't know, is the ruling political party in Taiwan and no friend of Beijing.

So far no press in Hong Kong has been closed by authorities. That's a fact. Critics have resorted to accusing the press of "self-censorship" in order to stay on good terms with Beijing. The accusation of self censorship is rather subjective and difficult to quantify. However, one Hong Kong official recently points out to me that the Basic Law guarantees freedom of information. If the government should step in and tell the press to stop practicing self censorship, whatever that means, then in effect the government will be telling the press what to say and thus taking away thatfreedom.

Hong Kong's foreign exchange reserves reached $85.3 billion by end of August and represents the fourth largest holding in the world, after Japan, China and Taiwan, in that order. The government is sufficiently confident of its financial strength to contribute $1 billion to the loan package extended to Thailand to help bolster the strickened baht. In summary, I can find no signs of impending economic collapse.

According to the latest survey of Hong Kong people, 82% believe the situation in Hong Kong will improve or remain unchanged. This is an increase of 8% from the survey taken two months earlier, shortly after the handover.

The western media, not for lack trying, have not been able to find circumstances where Tung is acting at the behest of Beijing rather in the interest of Hong Kong. In interviews during her visit to the U.S., well known activist, Emily Lau, has had to resort to a kind of no-win logic. Namely, if Mr. Tung is not obviously doing Beijing's bidding, it is because he is getting his marching orders secretly.

One hundred days admittedly is not a long time in the context of 50 years of the one-country, two-system experiement launched by Deng Xiaoping. At least for now, critics prone to demonize China at the slightest provocation are maginalized and subdued.

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