After the massacre in Tiananmen Square one year ago, it's no wonder that residents of Hong Kong pondered an escape route to the Federal Republic of Corterra. For just $16,000, Hong Kong citizens were offered a deal to buy a Corterra passport and access to the 12 islands of that nation midway between Hawaii and Tahiti.
There was only one hitch. There is no Corterra. It was the figment of a con man's imagination, created to prey on the fears of Hong Kong residents. On July 1, 1997, Britain will turn control of freewheeling Hong Kong over to the repressive Chinese government that would just as soon mow people over with tanks as let them live freely.
So today, instead of buying passports to imaginary havens, thousands of Hong Kong residents stand in line for hours at foreign consulates every day, rain or shine, to apply for passports. The lines often wind around blocks. but the people still wait. They have only seven years to get out and it's not too early to start.
The message of Tiananmen in Hong Kong was that China's promises that it would not interfere with the Hong Kong economy were probably hollow. If students in Beijing can be crushed because they asked for freedom, what will happen to the people of Hong Kong who already have it?
More than a million Hong Kong Chinese protested in the streets in the month after the massacre. Passport lines stretched for miles. China boosted the hysteria by saying 50,000 British passports issued to "key" Hong Kong residents would not be honored.
In this atmosphere, the fear vultures emerged. Residents have been teased not only by fake countries but also by bogus visas to real countries. Panama's former consulate general in Hong Kong was accused of running an illegal passport racket selling useless passports to Panama.
About 65,000 people are expected to stream out of Hong Kong this year. Most are the best and the brightest who won't tolerate suppression.
Spokesmen for the British government in Hong Kong have tried to quell the panic by touting the deal they struck with China. Beijing has promised not to oppress the people of Hong Kong and not to tamper with the capitalist economy for at least 50 years.
But a growing number of influential people in Hong Kong think the only way to protect themselves is to put a strong democratic system in place before the city changes hands.
There are eternal optimists. Wealthy Hong Kong developer Gordon Wu runs his business from the 64th floor of an office building with a postcard view of the world's busiest harbor. "The show will go on," he told our associate Jim Lynch.
"They have to leave us alone," said Princeton-educated Wu, noting that Hong Kong can be China's cash cow. He sees Hong Kong as a little Manhattan, functioning as corporate center while manufacturing goes on in China. "I think China will eventually come around to our way of thinking."
Many of Hong Kong's residents would argue Wu is 64 floors above reality. At street level are the people without a suitcase under the bed ready for a getaway. They don't have British VIP passports, nor the wherewithal to buy passports to imaginary countries, nor a ghost of a chance to get a legitimate ticket out of town.