Mrs. Thatcher's Munich

Let me tell you about Joan Tong. Joan is an attractive, 23-year-old Hong Kong Chinese who happens to be smart as a whip to boot. When I lived in Hong Kong she was my secretary, but now she brightens up the office of Martin Lee, leader of the colony's newly formed pro-democracy party. Like most of Hong Kong's 6.8 million inhabitants, Joan considers her home a sort of Chinese paradise and doesn't want to leave--ever. But she knows that working for Mr. Lee has put her and her family at risk come Beijing's 1997 takeover of Hong Kong, and she would thus like an insurance policy. So when the Thatcher government announced that only 50,000 Hong Kong households would have a right of abode in the United Kingdom she asked the obvious. "Do you think I am on that list?"

That's a question many Hong Kong residents are asking themselves, for they know that in seven short years the same men who sent the tanks rumbling into Tiananmen Square will be running their city. Right now 3.2 million Hong Kong residents carry British passports, but they are second-class documents that do not allow them to live in Britain. This means that even if Joan gets one of the coveted slots, hundreds of thousands of people just like her will be turned down. In short, when the Union Jack is lowered in Hong Kong on June 30, 1997, and the Royal Navy is replaced by the People's Liberation Army, the vast majority of Hong Kong Chinese will be left with no escape.

Originally they had hopes for the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration that set out the terms of the transfer, with its promises of "a high degree of autonomy" and a legislature "constituted by elections." But today, even as the Iron Curtain has fallen in Eastern Europe, Mrs. Thatcher calls a new mainland-drafted constitution that would place Hong Kong under the hand of a mostly appointed ruling class a "good deal." Thus, the chances for the people of Hong Kong having a say in their own future seem slight.

Frustration and fear over the prospect of being ruled by the Chinese is what last year sent Joan, her sister, Angela, and a million of their fellow citizens into the streets in protest. They were showing solidarity with protesters on the mainland, but they were also protesting their own future. This year some 200,000 marched again and came back the next night in a moving candlelight vigil, despite intimidation from Beijing and a veiled warning from Gov. Sir David Wilson. Wilson said they would be better off to "look to the future"--a hardly subtle hint about not offending their soon-to-be Chinese overlords. How fitting it is then to learn that the replica Goddess of Democracy raised in Hong Kong last year has ended in the trash heap.

The crisis of confidecee in Hong Kong has been mounting since 1985, when it became clear that the Tories valued their relations with Deng Xiaoping more than obligations to their subjects like Joan. Successive British nationality acts, moreover, stripped the people of Hong Kong of their only insurance policy against the Chinese takeover even though these same acts leave the white colonies of Gibraltar and the Falklands with a right of abode intact (not to mention the million or so white South Africans who enjoy it). In this context the latest bid to grant full citizenship to only 50,000 Hong Kong households ("people essential to the territory's future") is akin to dropping a lone life raft for those jumping from a sinking Titanic.

Brain drain: In economic terms Whitehall's unwillingness to protect all British nationals here has translated into a massive brain drain. The governor first denied the drain but now concedes it is perhaps the gravest threat to Hong Kong's continued prosperity. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, for example, reports that American firms now suffer from an average 30 percent turnover in staff each year. According to the government, between now and Beijing's takeover Hong Kong will see a net outflow of 425,664 people--a conservative estimate given the additional thousands of desperate people who are already making the passport forgers rich. And it's hard to square Margaret Thatcher's talk of honor with her government's continued refusal to extend the right of abode to the 30 or so Hong Kong widows whose husbands were executed by the Japanese for their loyalty to crown and country during World War II.

Back when the joint declaration was first announced proponents spoke enthusiastically of Hong Kong's taking over the mainland. Even Deng was sounding somewhat Jeffersonian, with his talk of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong." Today nobody says such things because it's not going to happen. The shame of this is deepened by the fact that it will come at a time when the Hong Kong people are beginning to appreciate their own unique identity. Equally to the point, why is it that the passion we in the West rightly exhibit on behalf of struggling Poles or Lithuanians is almost completely absent when it comes to Hong Kong, the most civilized place in all Asia?

The sun, of course, has long since set on the British empire and now, in Hong Kong, it is midnight and Her Majesty's representatives stumble about in the dark. Governor Wilson abases himself before Beijing, apologetic for Hong Kong's show of mourning for those killed by Deng's tanks. Mrs. Thatcher replaces Chamberlain's "peace in our time" with "prosperity in our time," making sure, of course, that Britain's back door is firmly latched. In the city itself, meanwhile, the people who don't get involved in politics are derided as incurably apathetic; those who emigrate are denounced as unpatriotic, and those like Joan--who despite combined British and Chinese pressure turn out en masse to show they care--are told to shut up and go quietly to the block.