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MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

Death Of A Bogeyman

Fading fears of China are changing the Territory's politics

There was a time when Hong Kong people feared China so much that they would split their families and pay a small fortune to secure a foreign passport and residency rights abroad, in case the 1997 handover did not work out. How things have changed. Last year only 12,900 Hong Kongers decided to emigrate, compared with 66,200 in 1992, when memories of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown were still fresh.

So two-and-a-half years after the handover, are Hong Kong people learning to - as Beijing hopes - love China? Or, is it more a case that they have learned to trust the mainland to honor its pledges not to meddle in local affairs? Perhaps the latter. "The [fear of] China factor is dead," says Michael De Golyer, the Hong Kong Baptist University political scientist who heads the Hong Kong Transition Project. That change of perception is already having an impact on local politics.

Since the introduction of directly elected seats to Hong Kong's legislature in 1991, the basic political divide has been between the "pro-democracy" camp and "pro-Beijing" forces. The former is exemplified by Martin Lee's Democratic Party, while the latter's chief electoral vehicle is the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). In successive polls, the Democrats have ridden voters' fears of China to lopsided triumphs. But as those anxieties subside, so has, to some extent, the party's main reason for being. More and more, political contests turn on local issues. The shift was most evident last November, when the DAB did surprisingly well in Hong Kong-wide polls for district councils, which advise the government on neighborhood affairs.

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With only six months to go before the second legislature election under China's rule, the Democratic Party is adrift, divided and bereft of funds. Even chairman Lee concedes: "There are disagreements." Within the party, the main divide is clear. On one side are younger, more radical members who remain vociferously anti-China, such as former student leader Andrew To Kwan-hang and union activist Cheng Kar-foo. On the other side are more moderate veterans, including Lee and deputy chairman Yeung Sum, who want to maintain communications with mainland authorities. Beijing, of course, encourages this division. Recently, it invited Democratic Party members for the first time to its annual Lunar New Year reception in Hong Kong. The guests were two moderates: legislator Fred Li and former lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen. "I hope it marks a small breakthrough," said Li.

Martin Lee thinks his party's public support remains firm, even as China fears wane. "I don't think voters look upon us as being anti-China per se," he says. "We only criticize [the mainland] when it is wrong. We back one country, two systems; Hong Kong's return to China; Beijing's accession to the World Trade Organization and annual renewal of Normal Trading Relations with the U.S. But we remain the voice of Hong Kong's people."

Some of the liberals' rhetoric is starting to sound a bit stale, however. Referring recently to the local Xinhua News Agency, Beijing's unofficial embassy, firebrand lawmaker Emily Lau sounded a customary warning: "I fear it could emerge as an alternative source of power." Yet when authorities finally labeled Xinhua for what it really is - renaming it Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong - the move hardly caused a yawn.

The body has long nurtured its influence throughout the community, especially in the sprawling public housing estates, subtly building goodwill toward China and its local supporters. The agency organizes seasonal tours to adjacent Guangdong province to pick lychees or attend snake banquets. "On the surface, these activities are non-political, but they build networks that can be mobilized during elections to support pro-Beijing parties," says Sonny Lo, who helped establish the Hong Kong Transition Project.

Being labeled "pro-Beijing" is no longer cause for social ostracism. Tam Yiu-chung, a legislator and DAB stalwart, gets a respectful hearing at that bastion of international Sino-skepticism, the Foreign Correspondents' Club. Pro-Beijing newspapers no longer are the rank outsiders they were in colonial times. Now, they are included in government backgrounding sessions - and often stoutly defend the local administration's policies.

Also working in China's favor is a generational shift in attitudes. People who harbor the deepest misgivings are those who fled the mainland shortly after the Communists took power in 1949. Younger Hong Kongers don't share the same hard, first-hand experience. Mostly they have known a China that is opening to the world and making considerable economic progress. But though memories of earlier upheavals are fading, the psychological impact of Tiananmen remains. Many in Hong Kong work hard to keep that memory alive. Annual vigils still attract tens of thousands of people, though other demonstrations - calling, for example, for the release of jailed Chinese dissidents - have drawn low turnouts.

None of this means that Hong Kongers have suddenly become fans of the mainland regime. The current goodwill stems largely from relief that worst-case scenarios have not materialized. "The fact that Beijing has not blatantly meddled in Hong Kong's affairs has served it well," says De Golyer. To inspire true love, it will have to do more.

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