New governor brings a fresh style to Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule Politician to preside over diverse interests

July 05, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

HONG KONG — C HONG KONG -- The sunset of Britain's colonial rule over this future corner of China begins this week with the absence of a swan plume.

The huge white plume adorns a helmet that has been part of the ceremonial garb of Hong Kong's British governors since the 19th century.

Lord David Wilson, who retired as governor Friday, wore that colonial regalia for the last time when he received a farewell salute from Hong Kong's police force late last month.

Chris Patten, who will be sworn in Thursday as Hong Kong's 28th and likely last British governor, has already made it known that his sartorial style is a bit more modern.

The retired swan feather aptly symbolizes both the waning of Britain's tenure over this dynamic city and the high expectations that Mr. Patten will bring a fresh touch to managing Hong Kong's uncertain transition to Chinese rule in just five years.

Mr. Patten -- former head of Britain's Conservative Party, confidant of Prime Minister John Major and touted as a future foreign secretary -- is the first politician to be appointed Hong Kong's governor after a long string of civil servants. Unlike many of his predecessors, he has had no prior experience dealing with China.

"He's going to be an eye-opener for Hong Kong," says Robert Broadfoot, managing director of an economic-risk consulting firm here. "He's a real politician, and he's going to come in here and act like one."

As the colony heads toward 1997, it may take a well-skilled

politician -- rather than well-schooled Sinophile -- to juggle London's interests with those of Beijing and of the 6 million residents of Hong Kong, who have been showing signs of shedding their longtime political apathy.

The political watchword here these days is "convergence," referring to the shared goal of Britain and China to transfer power as smoothly as possible. But convergence is turning out to involve a good many bumps along the way.

In the spotlight recently have been rising frictions between Hong Kong's first grass-roots democracy movement and China's desire to limit the autonomy of its future Special Administrative Region.

In Hong Kong's first direct elections in September, 12 of the 18 seats that were up for grabs in the colony's 60-member #i legislature were taken by a liberal, pro-democracy party with outspoken antipathy for the Chinese government.

Now these liberals are pressing for appointments to the new governor's Cabinet and for speeding up the pace by which the rest of the legislature may eventually be filled by direct elections -- moves that prompted the first sharp exchange between Mr. Patten and Beijing.

Early last week, China warned the new governor not to appoint any of the liberals to his Cabinet, adding rather personally: "Mr. Patten must not take this lightly."

Mr. Patten politely but firmly told China to back off, noting that such appointments were his alone to decide. "That was the situation, that is the situation and that will be the situation," he said.

That China can exert its muscle in the colony five years before 1997 is testimony to how much leverage Britain already has yielded to Beijing -- primarily in exchange for China's support for the construction of a new, $22 billion airport here.

China withheld its approval of the badly needed airport -- making private, long-term financing impossible -- until Britain last fall essentially gave it veto power over the project and profitable loan-syndication rights.

That agreement was supposed to have resolved the airport dispute, but it only positioned China to continue to hold the project hostage to its further demands. Another round of Sino-British talks on the project began Friday, and more British concessions seem likely.

Despite these frictions and the clamor for more democracy from certain quarters here, Hong Kong seems more than ever to have accepted China's impending takeover -- in large part because the colony is riding high on southern China's phenomenal economic boom.

This year's turnout for a memorial protest on the anniversary of the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square was paltry by comparison to previous years. In recent months, many prominent businessmen here have been publicly lining up with China, some signing on as a group of special advisers to Beijing.

Hong Kong's brain drain of the 1980s is now turning into something of a brain gain -- with an increasing number of professionals, who left to obtain the protection of citizenship elsewhere, now returning to the colony. The returnees often say they can make more money here than in their adopted homelands, and some have concluded that Hong Kong also may be a better place to raise their children -- an unheard-of notion a few years ago.

Rather than the gloomy predictions of Hong Kong's future under Chinese rule that were common just a few years ago, many analysts now are offering a 21st-century vision of the city as the flourishing financial capital of a powerful Chinese economic sphere encompassing Taiwan, China's southern and coastal provinces, and ethnic Chinese industrialists based in Southeast Asia.

"There's definitely an increased sense of confidence in Hong Kong these days," says Pauline Loong, head of China research for the Jardine Fleming bank here.

"Hong Kong, having finally accepted its fate, has now turned its attention to what it does best: making money."

Making money is, of course, the very point on which the colony's, China's and Britain's interests have often converged in the past -- and on which Mr. Patten may be expected to seek common ground in the run-up to 1997.

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