IN just five years, Britain's last major crown colony will revert to Chinese rule. Chris Patten's recent arrival in Hong Kong - minus the traditional ostrich plumes and gold braid - symbolizes the coming change. He will probably be the last British governor of the colony.
News of the new governor's arrival on the island by boat from the airport reminded me of my first visit to Hong Kong 40 years ago. Planes ran on propellers then, and Kaitak airport had a narrow landing strip precariously close to the surrounding hills of Kowloon - the Nine Dragons. But the ferry across the harbor from Tsimshatsui to Queen's Pier was pure Somerset Maugham. A majestic P. & O. liner was berthed beside our ferry, while freight ships from around the world stood in mid-harbor, surrounded by hi gh-pooped, square-sailed junks. Across the harbor soared Victoria Peak, with the homes of the taipans, the merchant princes, each flying the flag of its hong (commercial establishment).
When I moved to Hong Kong in the late 1950s, I went to the police department to apply for a driver's license. My pen happened to be filled with red ink, and as I started to write my name and so forth, the Chinese officer stopped me with a look of horror on his face. "Only her Majesty the Queen can write in red," he said, and handed me a blue ballpoint.
Hong Kong: a safe, stuffy place, I thought then - a place where a gungho correspondent could leave his wife and children, knowing they would be well cared for while he gallivanted off to the mini-war in Laos, the latest coup in Bangkok, or the long, draining guerrilla campaigns of Vietnam.
But today, Hong Kong is itself an exciting place to be. It's a city-state of six million, not just an economic marvel but a center for art, culture, and intellectual life. It's assertive press contains every shade of opinion - from communist to liberal to pure conservative.
The people of Hong Kong - 98 percent Chinese - enjoy individual freedom and the rule of law. They do not have elective political democracy. Only 18 of 60 members of the Legislative Council - Hong Kong's legislature - won seats in direct elections. The others are either appointed by the government or represent professional groups - accountants, the Chamber of Commerce, and so on. Emily Lau, one of the 18, succinctly summarizes her constituents' situation as "freedom without democracy."
So the new governor's mission is delicate: Mr. Patten must keep Hong Kong's economy vibrant despite uncertainties associated with reversion. He must set to rest Beijing's fears that Hong Kong will become a hotbed of subversion, while also reassuring citizens that the freedoms they enjoy will be preserved under Chinese rule. He has little choice but to trust Beijing's commitment, enshrined in a 1985 joint declaration with Britain, to give Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy." But he has also pointedly to ld Beijing that trust is a two-way street.
Unlike his predecessors - diplomats, colonial bureaucrats - Patten is a politician, former chairman of the Conservative Party and close to Prime Minister John Major. His first task will be to get Beijing to allow Hong Kong's plan for a grand new airport, costing billions, to proceed. Until 1997, London has no legal need for Beijing's consent, but because the airport will be financed by loans, banks and businessmen are loath to get involved unless China guarantees its future.
Hong Kong today presents a contradiction. Uncertain about the island's prospects under Chinese rule, 60,000 citizens, mostly representing the prosperous middle class, have left the colony for Canada, Australia, and other destinations last year. Yet the stock market is booming, and Hong Kong businessmen are deeply involved in ventures in neighboring Guangdong Province, from which many of them come. Hong Kong citizens are said to be superbly good at moneymaking, but politically apathetic. Yet the 18 electe d legislators all come from democratic opposition groups - not a single advocate of going slow on democracy won a seat. The point these legislators - people like Ms. Lau or lawyer Martin Lee - make is that once British rule is eliminated, Hong Kong's free economy will have no chance unless it is buttressed by political democracy. I agree. Without freedom, Hong Kong's economy will shrivel. If Hong Kong can't wait for China to become democratic, then democracy must be homegrown. Let Beijing decide whether to let this democracy stand after 1997, or whether to sacrifice not only Hong Kong, but Guangdong's booming economy, in the name of political orthodoxy.