Step out of the Hong Kong airport into a city whose population is 98 percent Chinese, and you are greeted by a massive, block-long billboard screaming ''Marlboro.''

There may not be a cowboy hat, much less a horse, within roping distance, but the rugged Marlboro man is there with his lasso in one hand and an unlit cigarette jutting from his lips.

Philip Morris Co. has converted Hong Kong into Oriental Marlboro Country. The Marlboro man is ever present in Hong Kong like some Western big brother. He blankets the sides of 15-story buildings, graces the walls of subways and squeezes into the downtown mosaic of neon Chinese signs and bustling markets.

Marlboro has the lion's share of the Hong Kong market, selling more than 6 billion cigarettes in the British territory last year. That's about 50 packs each for every man, woman and child.

Hong Kong, moving reluctantly toward a Chinese takeover in 1997, has latched onto U.S. products as if they were a lifeline to the West. The United States sold more to Hong Kong than it bought there in February -- the first time in many years that America has had a trade surplus with any of the Asian Wunderkinder of commerce.

The American fixation in Hong Kong isn't the product of a brilliant U.S. government strategy. The people of Hong Kong simply love American merchandise, right down to burgers and pizza.

The fast-food cowboys beat the odds. Popular wisdom when fast food chains first set their sites on Hong Kong was that the people there would not eat burgers, cheese or chicken that had been frozen. But today, Pizza Hut is the rage in Hong Kong, and McDonald's is approaching shrine status.

Our associate Jim Lynch was on hand for the opening recently of the biggest McDonald's in Hong Kong. Ronald McDonald rapped with the crowd in Chinese. Angela Bassage, director of McDonald's marketing in Hong Kong, talked about the territory's 48 restaurants as though they were her gifted children. The busiest McDonald's in the world is in Hong Kong.

The United States is the biggest supplier of frozen poultry and fresh fruit to Hong Kong. The territory even buys Oriental products from America, including ginseng from Wisconsin.

With a land mass just half the size of Rhode Island and 5.5 million people, Hong Kong has become the 14th-biggest market for American goods. The average Hong Kong resident spends more than three times what Japanese or European citizens spend on U.S. merchandise.

But those ties could have snapped with a single decision to remove China from the list of favored trading partners. In Hong Kong, they must temper their outrage over human rights abuses in China with their economic survival.

The tariffs imposed on non-favored trading partners would strangle many of the 900 American businesses operating in Hong Kong. Even the most liberal China bashers in Hong Kong hoped the United States would express its displeasure with China in some other way.

The bond between the United States and Hong Kong is more than just materialism. The number of American citizens living there has just passed that of the British -- 18,000 people who have brought their own culture, including a Harley Davidson club that gathers for monthly road rallies.

Cable News Network runs on Hong Kong television sets, beamed from a nation that is nine time zones away.

The pervasive U.S. presence does not mean Hong Kong buys everything American. Donald Trump parked his yacht, the 282-foot Trump Princess here and tried to sell it, but there were no nibbles. ''We all knew he was trying to sell it for six times what he paid for it,'' one resident told us. Trump went looking for a buyer in Japan, where no price is too high.

Hong Kong has not escaped the footprints of America's vainglorious entrepreneur, though. Construction has begun on a 78-story Trump Tower there. Trump's presence, like that of Ronald McDonald, assures Hong Kong that people with money are confident capitalism and Americanism will survive when Britain hands Hong Kong back to China in 1997.