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Hong Kong Refugees

HONG KONG, that island-plus of stability on the edge of volatile China, is anything but stable these days. As a trade and financial crossroads, Hong Kong is accustomed to seeing people coming and going, but the hurrying has had the purposeful, businesslike air of O'Hare or Heathrow. Today, however, the last British colony has more the apprehensive, uncertain, and slightly chaotic atmosphere of a refugee camp. In fact, parts of Hong Kong are refugee camps. In past months, 55,000 Vietnamese refugees - most of them boat people - have descended on the colony. Housed in makeshift detention centers, they have overwhelmed government services. Mounting frustration among the refugees burst forth into violence twice last week.

Ironically, as Vietnamese try to elbow their way into Hong Kong, thousands of residents are seeking to get out. With Hong Kong scheduled to revert to Chinese control in 1997, the colony's citizens have watched with growing alarm China's retreat into Maoist orthodoxy. China's assurances of political and economic autonomy for Hong Kong appear hollow as Beijing systematically rolls back the reforms of a decade. Anxiety has prompted many residents to flee and has even given birth to grandiose schemes for the reconstitution of Hong Kong elsewhere in the Pacific.

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The common denominator for the Vietnamese refugees crammed into squalid tent cities and the prosperous burghers exiting their high-rise apartments is fear of communism. Discredited though it may be as a political and economic system, communism retains the power to make millions miserable. The boat people have fled its repressive and broken-down present in the land ruled by Hanoi, while residents of Hong Kong try to keep ahead of communism's forbidding future under the old autocrats in Beijing.

The East German refugees streaming into Hungary are symbols of a European dawn, while the refugees streaming into and out of Hong Kong testify to a continuing Asian night.

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