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New Hong Kong Bears Striking Similarity to Old

'Nothing seems very different' is a common refrain heard 100 days after China's takeover.

A Modern-day Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep a year ago and woke up today would hardly realize that the British left Hong Kong three months ago.

The street cars still trundle down Queen's Road. The policemen wear the same uniforms, and Rip would have to look very closely to note that the official flower has replaced the royal crest on their cap badges.

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China's People's Liberation Army moved into Hong Kong with considerable fanfare on the morning of July 1 and disappeared into its barracks never to be seen again. Its headquarters in what is still known as the Prince of Wales Building often looks deserted.

About the only thing Rip might notice are the new red-and-white flags of Hong Kong flying where the British Union Jack used to flutter. Oh yes, and the familiar red Royal Mail post office boxes have been painted green.

Other than those, the "new" Hong Kong looks, feels, and operates remarkably like the old Hong Kong.

"It's business as usual," Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa tells everyone he meets these days.

His first state-of-the-territory speech Wednesday also marked the first 100 days of Chinese rule. In it, he set out a series of policies from building more affordable housing to creating high-tech industrial parks, from increasing new welfare payments to the elderly to new railroads. He also promised vigorous action to maintain Hong Kong's economic competitiveness.

Only once during his 125-minute speech did he touch on politics. He reaffirmed his commitment to open, law-based government, and announced that legislative elections will be held in May. The election rules ensure the dominance of business leaders, professionals, and pro-China candidates.

But despite these democratic setbacks, many residents say life is, in many ways, the same. Journalists debate endlessly the degree to which they censor themselves, pull punches, or otherwise try to accommodate a more patriotic line in their reporting, while mainly going about the business of printing the news.

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"Nothing seems very different," says Sophia Woodman, director of Human Rights in China, which continues to publish its magazine China Rights Forum. The dissident magazine Beijing Spring can still be found on newsstands and "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," a hard-hitting documentary on the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre, is easily available.

Hong Kong's promised autonomy in financial affairs got a test during this summer as speculators attacked Southeast Asian currencies. Financial Secretary Donald Tsang pledged $1 billion of Hong Kong's large foreign-currency reserves to help fund a bailout for Thailand organized by the International Monetary Fund, without seeking Beijing's permission as far as anyone can tell.

A recent survey showed that 85 percent of Hong Kong's people are now confident of the territory's future under China (compared with 66 percent before the July 1 handover). Yet other polls show that many Hong Kongers are still deeply ambivalent about China.

One survey by Hong Kong University showed that only 32 percent were happy to be Chinese (meaning citizens of the the People's Republic of China, PRC), while 60 percent were not particularly proud. The Chinese know they have a long way to go to foster a stronger sense of patriotism.

The effort began Oct. 1 as Hong Kong celebrated its first National Day (the PRC was proclaimed on that day in 1949) with a two-day holiday extravaganza.

The Chinese national anthem may soon be played in movie theaters, though only when showing films produced in the mainland.

School texts have been changed to present a more nationalistic view on such events as the Opium War of 1840, which previous texts under British rule had described as a kind of trade war. Now it is portrayed as an invasion of China by foreign powers. (The Opium War of 1842 led to the cession of Hong Kong Island to the British.)

Taiwan is shown on maps as being a part of China, and references to Tiananmen Square, generally referred to as an "incident," have been toned down.

Cheung Man-kwong, chairman of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, criticized the changes as being "clearly a sign of toeing the official line of the central government in Beijing."

But pro-Beijing legislator David Chu says teaching patriotism was common in schools all over the world. "To imbue youngsters with love for their country is universal," he says.

Many are wondering what happens when Taiwan sympathizers celebrate their de facto national day tomorrow. Local organizers have been told it's OK to hold celebrations and display pictures of founder Sun Yat Sen, though they will probably tone down displays of the Nationalist-cum-Taiwan flag.

Three months into Hong Kong's promised 50 years of local autonomy, Beijing appears to be observing its agreements punctiliously. It remains to be seen if that will be true for the next 597 months.

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