The governor of Hong Kong, Sir Edward Youde, joined British diplomats and Chinese leaders in Peking today for the second meeting this month on the question of Hong Kong's future after 1997, the year Britain's 99-year lease on most of the crown colony's territory expires.
As Youde left Hong Kong, a sense of powerlessness prevailed among the colony's more than 5 million Chinese, who are learning to live with the so-called "Hong Kong jitters."
A Hong Kong newspaper noted recently that while both London and Peking say they will consider the opinion of Hong Kong residents, the colony is not formally represented at the negotiating table. The talks are being conducted in the utmost secrecy.
With little indication of what conclusions will be reached or when, the daily line of visa applicants at the U.S. Consulate stretches the length of the building.
Brokers report that their clients are switching from Hong Kong dollar "red book" savings to the green passbooks of U.S. dollar accounts. "It's a sort of little insurance policy," one broker said.
Since the British Nationality Act downgraded the emigration status of holders of passports issued here, traffic in forged, stolen or purchased travel documents has increased. This summer a Hong Kong court was told that forged Portuguese passports seized by officials could have been sold on the market for more than $8,000 each. Desperate people have been willing to pay $5,600 for Hong Kong passports with switched photos, according to testimony in another case.
A recent British decision to note on the passports of Hong Kong citizens that the holders are subject to control under the Immigration Act of 1971 was "another slap in our face, much resented by us," said Christine Loh, a citizen. She added, "We not only think the stamp unnecessary, but we believe the Home Office, in its unfounded obsession that one day Hong Kong passport holders will flood the gates of Britain, has displayed a degree of insensitivity that we find hard to understand."
One of the reasons for touchiness in the Hong Kong community is the knowledge that while wealthier people may have contingency plans for emigration, most average Hong Kong Chinese would have few options if Britain and China should agree to make Hong Kong a "special administrative region," as Peking has proposed.
To make such a prospect more palatable, Peking has also proposed vaguely that Hong Kong people run Hong Kong. A recent poll showed that as many as 70 percent of Hong Kong's university students would remain here if Hong Kong became a "special administrative region," provided the legal and economic systems were not changed.
There are also other proposals: that Hong Kong's present body of laws prevail, that a new form of democratic self-rule be introduced, or that the British stay on for a transitional period after 1997. One citizen wrote to a newspaper in doubt and frustration,"I wonder which one of the many desires of Hong Kong people has been and will be taken into consideration by the British representatives . . . . I think this is not a matter to be kept confidential because every subject in Hong Kong certainly wants his desire to be carried out and wants to make sure it is considered."
A factor in the Chinese decision to resume talks after nine months of silence following British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit to Peking last September may have been the blunt terms in which a group of young business and professional men described the nervous tension in Hong Kong at a meeting with Chinese leaders in May.
"It takes a lot of courage to grab the dragon on the throne right by the throat and tell him what is going on," said an observer close to the talks.
China also may have been concerned that as time passes, confidence will drain away, and Hong Kong dollars with it. So quick is the market to respond to any comment from an official that a Hong Kong information officer said, "If the head of the local automobile assocation says he is confident, the market will probably react."
With the resumption of talks, local trading interest has returned, if only temporarily, to the Hong Kong stock exchanges. The hope is that the ultimate solution will include Peking's guarantee that Hong Kong will be allowed to flourish in its traditionally resilient and haphazard capitalist fashion.
A British guarantee probably will be needed, too. Britain's ability to make good on such a guarantee is what Hong Kong's people have relied on since the communist revolution in China, and it may be all they will ask for the future.