Political noise level drops in the new era


This week it will be 100 days since the People's Liberation Army rolled across the border and Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China. But apart from the red flag on public buildings it's hard to tell anything has changed.

Some relics of the old order can still be found. The city-centre quarters which the PLA occupies is still called the Prince of Wales Barracks. The Royal Yacht Club has not dropped the "Royal" (except in the Chinese version - a clever compromise). The coins and stamps have the bouhinia flower rather than Queen Elizabeth's head, but that happened long before July 1st.

You can still see the Union Jack on display if you go to Henry Keith Ip's bar, the Soldiers' Mess, in Kowloon, where former members of the British army's Chinese regiment gather to drown their sorrows. "I was broken-hearted on handover day," said the proprietor, "otherwise nothing has changed."

"Come to think of it, I haven't even seen a PLA soldier yet," said an Irish business executive, Brian O'Connor, who is setting up a health-care organisation in Hong Kong. "The truth is I never saw a British soldier here either," added the Belfast man over dinner in the Grand Hyatt amid a sea of World Bank officials. "As far as business is concerned, nothing has changed. This has caused a degree of surprise among some people in Hong Kong who predicted doom and gloom."

One of those who gave the impression the lights would go out after July 1st is Martin Lee. In his law office, beneath a photograph of a demonstration he addressed from a balcony on handover night, the head of the Democratic Party acknowledged that life went on much as before, that protesters still demonstrate and no one has been thrown in jail for dissent.

"The trouble is how do I know that the Chinese leaders will not go back to the bad ways tomorrow?" he asked. "I never said people would lose their freedoms on 1st July. But if you look deeper, all the systems have changed. Tung Chee-wha [Hong Kong's chief executive] has got a lot of draconian powers. I don't think I'll be in prison tomorrow or the following year but how can I exclude the possibility?"

Civil liberties had not been trampled because of what he called the "goose factor" - China did not want to lose the goose that laid the golden eggs, and was keen to entice Taiwan back to the fold by good example. But the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had proved that if things went wrong, the leaders would take any measures to stay in power, he said.

In elections next year a new list system would mean that the Democrats, the most popular party, would get only a handful of the seats in the legislative council, Mr Lee pointed out. His assistant, Minky Worden, interjected: "It's rigged. It's designed to give seats to those who are always defeated in elections."

Bishop Zen also finds the political process a headache. The slightly-built churchman, tipped as the next Catholic leader in Hong Kong, explained how 10 of the 60 seats in the council will be chosen by an 800-member election committee - a "monster", he called it, representing labourers, grass-roots societies, fisheries, sport, entertainment and religion.

The church did not want to be involved in what was no more than "a united front to shut our mouths", he said. It did not want to be seen to sabotage it and was giving "passive collaboration," but "it's wasting so much of my precious time", he told me.

While he saw much to be hopeful for in the attitude of the Chinese leaders since the handover (and he too has never seen a PLA soldier in Hong Kong), the bishop worried about the continuing role of the New China News Agency (Xinhua), which before July represented Beijing's interests in the territory.

Since the handover, Xinhua continued to interfere and people believed that it was a second centre of power, he said. "Maybe they think it is their role to teach us to love our country. That would be an insult to us."

Many Hong Kong people fear that one of the targets of Xinhua influence is the schools. In education significant changes are already under way. History textbooks have been revised to exclude colonial bias - such as a description of the Opium Wars as "trade wars" - and are now more politically correct. Tiananmen 1989 has become an "incident", not a "crackdown".

The revised upper middle school history texts no longer mention the 1958-1961 famine - though Jasper Becker's detailed work, The Hungry Ghosts, which reveals that 30 million people died, remains available in Hong Kong shops along with dozens of other books critical of the Chinese communists and banned on the mainland.

English is also being downgraded. Cantonese is to be compulsory for all but a few of the 400 secondary schools, a development which caused 73 per cent of students to express fears in a September poll that it would send English standards plummeting at a time when English is the lingua franca of much of Asia and of high tech.

The media remain free, though 68 per cent of people believe they preferred not to criticise Beijing, according to a recent poll. Ms Carol Pui-Yee Lai, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, warned, in a lecture on 100 days under Chinese rule, of a decline in the openness of the bureaucracy and "plain old censorship" by editors and publishers doing Beijing's "dirty work" by watering down criticism or spiking offensive stories.

In Hong Kong last week I found that the political noise level has dropped markedly since the departure of the combative Chris Patten. The big topic of debate was the fall-off in the number of tourists, the city's third-biggest money-spinner. High prices and hotel costs are being blamed.

But one English executive said: "Whisper it softly, but what has Hong Kong got for the visitor now except Shanghai Tang's [a high-quality Chinese store] or the antique shops? When the British left it lost a unique selling point - tea and cucumber sandwiches, Queen Victoria, men in silly hats - all that stuff. A lot of the colourful, colonial element which tourists liked has gone.

"Hong Kong has got more inward looking," she said. "Its value to Beijing is by staying outward looking. They had better watch out or they will just become another Chinese city and they will get stiffed by Shanghai, which is coming up fast."