HONG KONG -- the word on the streets and in the gleaming skyscraper offices here is that once the British hand power over to Beijing on July 1, Hong Kong will remain virtually unchanged -- a frenetic, money-obsessed Asian powerhouse, with the highest concentration of Rolls-Royces on the planet.
Virtually unchanged, that is, since a few human-rights details won't be resolved until after Prince Charles lowers the Union Jack and sails out of Hong Kong harbor on the royal yacht Britannia at midnight, June 30.
Three laws are still up for decision, and are likely to come into effect after the British have gone: no demonstrations without permits; no fund-raising from abroad for political organizations; and extradition to the mainland for "criminals" -- i.e. Chinese dissidents like Han Dong-Fang, who could become one of the thorniest test cases for the new Hong Kong.
Han, a tall 33-year-old with lean good looks and a soft voice, was literally frog-marched across the Chinese border into Hong Kong three and a half years ago and tossed into exile for illegally forming a trade union. Born into a dirt-poor family in Beijing, he joined the People's Liberation Army after high school but was refused Communist Party membership after complaining about the lack of food for the lower ranks.
In 1989, he joined the hundreds of thousands of protesters camped in Tiananmen Square and began organizing workers, finally being spirited out by a group of dissidents on the night of June 9 as soldiers opened fire on the crowd. He never again saw the people who saved his life.
One week later, Han surrendered to security police after seeing his face on "Wanted" posters across Beijing. He spent 22 months in jail, where he contracted tuberculosis in a cell containing 20 other men who "coughed blood every day."
"I was dying," Han says. "I weighed 90 pounds and needed help to go to the toilet." Once released, he was brought by human-rights groups to New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where a surgeon removed a lung that "looked like tofu."
But Han wasn't finished with his homeland. In 1993, he attempted to sneak back into China from Hong Kong. The police caught him, escorted him back across the border, declared him forever unwelcome and forcibly passed him into the hands of the Hong Kong government.
In just three months, Han will be back in China again, because his home on Hong Kong's Lamma Island, like the rest of the province, will be in China itself. And presumably Han would be as vulnerable to arrest as if he were in Beijing.
Pro-Beijing politicians here doubt that will happen, because, they say, China intends to stick to its "one country, two systems" agreement with Britain. "Han Dong-Fan won't be able to do anything after July 1 that he cannot do now," says Tsang Yok-Sing, chairman of one of Hong Kong's pro-China parties, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, and one of China's advisors during the transition. "Hong Kong will still have the rule of law."
But as British rule winds down, the game plan is changing. Recently, China declared Hong Kong's elected Legislative Council defunct and appointed its own chief executive, Tung Chee-Hwa.
Not knowing what will happen next, the few dozen Chinese dissidents living in Hong Kong have agreed to quietly resettle in the United States and Europe during the next few months. The lone exception, apparently, is Han. He insists he will continue living in Hong Kong, editing his paper, the China Labor Bulletin, and shipping it into mainland China.
Salon talked with Han Dong-Fan in Hong Kong.
What is your future after July 1?
It's difficult to guess about the dangers. I have to prepare for the worst, that they might send me back to jail. That would be really the worst, to have the Public Security Bureau officers come to my home and take me back to China. You know, I am now a husband and a father -- my one son is 4 and a half, and the other will be 3 in less than two weeks' time.
Do you think there will be protection for dissidents like yourself in Hong Kong under Chinese rule?
I don't think anybody wants to destroy the rule of law in Hong Kong in a very short period of time. Tung Chee-Hwa is a businessman. I don't think he's the same kind of person as the Communist Party leaders in Beijing. I believe that slowly, slowly there will be problems in the relationship between them.
But what makes you think China will go easy on human rights in Hong Kong?
I think it will if it wants Hong Kong to continue to be part of the international community. I don't think it'll be good for the Chinese government if they arrest me. They just want to take care of business interests.
So, what they decide to do with you will be a real test case of where the new Hong Kong is headed.
I think it's a test case of the new Hong Kong and the new chief executive. It'll test the rule of law in Hong Kong, and the notion of one country, two systems. Hong Kong has signed international conventions protecting social and political rights.
Should the West be playing a role in protecting human rights in Hong Kong?
The international community lost its chance to make a deal with China, especially since President Clinton gave Most Favored Nation status to China and said that there was no linkage between trade and human rights. After he said that, between March and May 1994, the Chinese government arrested almost every dissident, even as Clinton was giving MFN status. And since then, its official policy on dissidents has been, "You have two choices -- stay in jail or leave the country."
Why put yourself in that kind of danger? Why not just leave?
I'm a Chinese citizen. I still have a Chinese passport, although the government canceled it after they threw me out of the country. But I still travel the world on it. And I want to keep fighting. I am a trade unionist, and you have to stay close to the people. I always try to tell the Chinese government that I'm not a politician at all. I'm not interested in political power, so I'm not a political challenger to them. Relax, I say. Take it easy.