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Early Chinese rule in Hong Kong a mix of change and continuity

October 5, 1997

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Britain handed Hong Kong back to China 100 days ago with a brief ceremony, but the impact is only slowly becoming clear. So too, ordinary people like John and Shirley Wong find it takes time to adjust. The Associated Press has been reporting periodically on the Wongs’ reaction to the change in rule.

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By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW

Associated Press Writer

HONG KONG (AP) _ The first 100 days of Chinese rule in Hong Kong have been like riding a roller coaster for construction supervisor John Wong.

``Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s frightening,″ the 42-year-old Wong said last week while relaxing with his family at home during the territory’s newest holiday, Chinese National Day.

When Hong Kong became part of China on July 1 after 156 years as a British colony, suspicion marred the reunion.

Would authoritarian China respect Hong Kong’s freedoms? Would it tolerate its irreverent news media, its cosmopolitan culture, its thriving civic groups and all else that made Hong Kong distinctive?

As the community prepares to count off its 100th day as part of China on Wednesday, Wong and others note with relief that most aspects of daily life are unchanged and the economy is still growing strongly.

But like a roller coaster, confidence has experienced dips as some democratic reforms have been reversed.

Life under Britain, with its emphasis on the rule of law, meant ``you knew where you would be in the future,″ said Wong. ``The Chinese way of life is more hidden. You don’t know what will happen.″

On the positive side, China is seen as generally keeping its promise of a high degree of autonomy for the territory. Hong Kong’s hard-working, hard-playing lifestyle goes on, with its stock market defying a regional downturn.

Racetracks and nightclubs still pack in crowds. Books banned elsewhere in China remain on sale. Churches are full and free. Activists still march with banners demanding that Beijing end one-party Communist rule and free political prisoners.

Hong Kong still shows a good time to sailors from the U.S. Pacific fleet arriving for shore leaves, and they don’t need to buy new maps: Colonial place names like Victoria Peak and Prince of Wales army barracks are unchanged.

It is in the political sphere that most change has taken place, beginning with the July 1 installation of a temporary, unelected legislature that excludes Hong Kong’s most popular party, the Democrats.

A new election law sharply reduces the number of people who can vote for a new legislature to be chosen next May. The Democrats say the law will hurt their chances for a comeback.

Some critics say the new government is less open. Certainly, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is much more circumspect with reporters than was the last British governor, Chris Patten, and reporters have less access to officials at formal events.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently warned that many local media routinely censor themselves, even though the most critical newspapers still publish without reprisal. And demonstrators complain that police now try to herd them into fenced-off areas out of sight of the officials they want to address.

``Freedom is decreasing,″ said Elaine Chan, a political science professor at City University. ``If you look at all the opinion polls, people really care about freedom and human rights. They really feared that we would lose them, and that’s exactly what is happening.″

Chan said many people are disturbed by the disbanding of the last elected legislature under China’s orders. China objected to the more democratic rules under which it was chosen.

Lau Siu-kai, also a political science professor, disagreed. He said the legislature doesn’t really matter to ordinary people because they know new elections are coming.

``People are very relieved that the fears they had before the handover have not been realized,″ he said.

Wong spends his free time helping care for 2-year-old twin daughters rather than participating in politics, but he supported the democratic reforms that are now being undone. He’s fatalistic about the changes.

``With 1997 now here, you have to bend yourself a bit,″ he said. ``I would say more people are concerned with how to make a decent living than to see who is governing or what has been done to improve democracy.″

In his daily life, changes ``are moving in silently,″ he said. The main one is that more Hong Kong people are taking positions of authority at his workplace, replacing expatriates.

His wife, Shirley, said this is also happening at the university where she is a secretary, part of a localization policy that began several years ago but has picked up pace.

Whatever else has changed, hearts and minds have been the slowest to adapt.

When the territory celebrated Chinese National Day for the first time on Oct. 1, the Wongs said they felt little emotion. They regard themselves as citizens of Hong Kong rather than of China, and polls indicate more than a third of the territory’s people feel the same.

Only a few hundred people attended a Chinese flag-raising on National Day, compared with about 260,000 who gathered for a similar ceremony in Beijing.

``I would expect the Chinese way of life to come in five, 10 years from now, when the British are long gone,″ Wong said. ``Now, they are still remembered.″

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