To Hong Kong, It's "What Spy Plane Crisis?"

The U.S.-China standoff didn't faze the islanders -- in cyberspace or on the streets -- much to Beijing's dismay

By Bruce Einhorn

Remember the 1996 Presidential campaign? Back then, hapless Republican candidate Bob Dole tried in vain to get Americans riled up about Bill Clinton's many ethical problems. But in those pre-Lewinsky days, the American people didn't seem to care that much about the Man from Hope's shortcomings. By the end of the campaign, Dole was left sputtering, almost to himself, "Where's the outrage?" Fast forward to Hong Kong's reaction to the crisis that started on Apr. 1 when a Chinese fighter crashed into an American spy plane. Chinese President Jiang Zemin might be feeling a bit like Bob Dole about now, wondering why Hong Kong citizans don't feel the same kind of outrage that their counterparts on the mainland feel toward the arrogant and callous Americans.

Indeed, in both the real world and the cyberworld, not many impassioned cries for revenge came out of Hong Kong. It only provides further evidence that almost four years after the British sailed away and the Chinese raised the red flag over Victoria Peak, Hong Kong and China remain worlds apart.

COMMERCIAL CITY.

  While the downing of the Chinese jet aroused righteous nationalistic passions on the mainland, in the former British colony not many people seemed to care. During the height of the crisis, the chat rooms of mainland Chinese Internet sites were filled with Web surfers denouncing U.S. hegemony. It was hard to find the same kind of righteous anger in sites catering to Hong Kong Chinese.

Michael DeGolyer, a professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, thinks he knows why. DeGolyer is the director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a long-term study of how Hong Kong is handling its return to the motherland since 1997. He's not surprised to see Hong Kong's residents yawn. Hong Kong, after all, is a commercial city above all else. "Adam Smith said that nations engaged in free trade were far less likely to go to war than mercantilists," DeGolyer says. "You try to please your customers, not kill them."

Moreover, Hong Kong Chinese are not nationalists, DeGolyer says. According to his surveys, only about 25% of Hong Kong citizens say they are proud and excited on Oct. 1, Chinese National Day. While DeGolyer expected that to change after the British left, his surveys show that the percentage has stayed put. "We have people in Hong Kong who are very nationalistic," he says. "But they are a tiny minority."

NOT SO HOT.

  Consider the reaction of Hong Kong's political parties to the crisis. The most pro-Beijing party in Hong Kong, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (known in the local press as the DAB), mustered up a tepid statement on its Web site supporting Beijing's demand for an apology. "The DAB believes that America should cease surveillance flights in Chinese waters," the party wrote, to facilitate the development of "friendly Sino-American relations."

Hardly fire-breathing stuff. And although the DAB can usually be counted on to repeat whatever Beijing wants it to, it seemed slightly embarrassed about going as far as it did: While the party's Web site (www.dab.org.hk) is bilingual, the statement conveniently appears only in Chinese.

But even that carried more patriotic fervor than Hong Kong's other major political parties could manage. A few days after the crisis started, the Democratic Party, led by Beijing critic Martin Lee, posted a statement -- also in Chinese -- expressing "regret" about the crisis and hoping that the two sides could "peacefully and reasonably resolve the incident."

MISSING PROTESTERS.

  The probusiness Liberal Party ignored the crisis altogether. The Liberals form one of the most important blocs of support for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the leader handpicked by Jiang to run Hong Kong once the British pulled up stakes. On the other side of the Hong Kong political spectrum is an ad-hoc group known as the Frontier, the closest the island has to a Western-style left-wing party. The Frontier also didn't mention the incident on its Web page.

The apathy wasn't just in cyberspace. On the street, I saw precious few signs of concern from Hong Kong's population of almost 7 million. And that's not for lack of opportunity: Unlike the mainland, where the government almost always keeps a tight rein on public demonstrations (unless, as in the case of the anti-American riots of 1999, they serve a useful purpose for Beijing's rulers), Hong Kong allows its people to protest. Every week, for instance, groups of disgruntled citizens gather in front of the Legislative Council building to shout their gripes at the lawmakers inside.

So if they wanted to go out and shout "Kill the Americans," Hong Kongers could have done it. They didn't, though. Anti-American demonstrations are legal, just not popular. To be sure, a couple of old faithfuls showed up in front of the U.S. Consulate shortly after the accident to denounce the U.S. But that's about it.

POST-NATIONAL.

  Throughout the two weeks of the Sino-American showdown, we kept hearing about how the Chinese people were furious at the U.S. Yet here in Hong Kong, the only part of China where people have the freedom to express that fury, there was little sign of it. In the only place in China with a free press rather than state-controlled propaganda organs, the people had a chance to learn both sides of the story rather than just the party line. "Hong Kong has free access to information from all sides, and that helps," says DeGolyer. "People feel like they know what's going on. They realize that there is a diversity of views."

So in the one place in China with an economy that is truly free and open, Chinese people showed that they had little interest in mindless nationalism. Hong Kong's citizens, many of them refugees from Communism who grew up under a colonial government, just don't have much patience for nationalism, DeGolyer says. They "went from pre-nationalism to post-nationalism."

That might deepen the rift between Hong Kong and the rest of China. "The mainland is confused by Hong Kong," says DeGolyer. "It looks Chinese and speaks Chinese, but every time [the leaders] expect Hong Kongers to act like Chinese -- like mainlanders -- they don't."

Where's the outrage? Not here in Hong Kong. The British are long gone, but as the reaction to the spy-plane crisis shows, Hong Kong to a large extent remains foreign territory.

Einhorn covers technology for BusinessWeek from Hong Kong. Follow his column every week, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton