Standing up to China isn't easy in Hong Kong Many fear loss of livelihoods

October 09, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

HONG KONG -- In Lan Kwai Fong, one of this city's trendy expatriate enclaves, Bob Marley and the Wailers boom from the sound system of Al's Diner, a thoroughly American joint down to its platters of meat loaf and mashed potatoes.

"Get up, stand up," the late Jamaican reggae rocker sings to a driving back beat. "Stand up for your rights."

But across Hong Kong's fetid harbor in the teeming markets of Mongkok, the Chinese workers who account for more than 90 percent of the residents of this international trading post are moving to a very different rhythm -- to a kind of Chinese opera.

The driving beat is the certainty that each day inexorably brings closer the authoritarian grip of the giant next door, China. And there's nothing much they can do about it.

Stand up for your rights? For democracy? For freedom?

Sure, they're all great ideas, but not if they mean not eating, says Nip Goh Wah, 40, who sells pet birds from a small stall in a Mongkok alley. The sharp tones of Cantonese opera spill from a nearby radio, mingling with his birds' soft chirping.

Mr. Nip's father fled adjacent Guangdong province after the Chinese Communist revolution more than 40 years ago. "None of us trust the Communists at all," he's quick to say. "I don't want my children to grow up under them.

'We can't leave'

"But what can we really do? We can't leave. And if we stand up for democracy, the Communists will make lots of trouble for us here, and then how will we make a living?"

After his annual policy speech Wednesday, Hong Kong's British governor, Chris Patten, professed to find it "a huge puzzle" why his year-old proposals to marginally increase the degree of democracy here have encountered such vehement resistance from Chinese authorities who take over this city in mid-1997.

Much of the answer has to do with the ways in which the Hong Kong issue goes to the core of Beijing's nationalist sensitivities and brittle pride. But the governor really need look no further than the huge gulf between his liberal democratic values and the pragmatic priorities of most of his colony's residents.

Beijing knows that to control Hong Kong, it does not have to embrace Mr. Patten's democratic niceties. It only has to intimidate the city's pocketbooks, which increasingly rely on the strength of the economy of southern China and on stable political relations with Beijing.

On Wednesday, the governor noted a clear example of this. His fight with Beijing means it hasn't agreed to a new container terminal for Hong Kong's port -- setting the stage for a delay that could cost the city's economy $2.5 billion in the decade after 1997.

At the same time, Hong Kong in some ways may be more resilient than ever in the face of China's threats. Even as the governor carefully challenged China on Wednesday, the city's volatile stock market hit a new high -- largely fueled by foreign investors eager to profit from China's rocketing growth. China itself is now the colony's largest foreign investor.

Hong Kong's spine also is buttressed by a home-grown democracy movement led by a core of courageous activists who do not shrink from challenging Beijing -- or the British governor. These democrats tend to win Hong Kong's limited legislative elections.

Economy before liberty

But in general, these activists and the city's growing economic strength have not altered its bottom line: China says economic development comes before civil liberties and -- call it fear or pragmatism -- most of Hong Kong seems to believe it.

That's why the results of opinion polls these days are so split. Mr. Patten remains popular; many even seem to enjoy watching him stand up to Beijing. They also say they want Western democratic rights. But when the question is posed so the cost of those rights is angering China, the answer is resounding appeasement.

"Hong Kong people are really very schizophrenic," says Pauline Loong, chief China analyst for Jardine Fleming Securities Ltd. here. "They want democracy and they want the good life. But if it's a choice, they'll take the good life. It's hard to believe when you look around at our contemporary affluence, but many people here still remember being hungry -- even starvation."

In his speech, Mr. Patten warned Hong Kong -- as he has before -- that he cannot go alone against China, that the colony also must stand up for the democratic values he has been espousing.

"We cannot be bolder than you," he exhorted. "We cannot be bolder than you because liberty stands in the heart."

As the governor presses forward, relatively few here are finding such boldness in their hearts. And that is precisely what Beijing has been counting on.

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