hen I first flew into the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1950, the airport was mainly what was left of a World War II Japanese air base with a steep hill at both ends of the short runway. Even the Pan Am Clipper pilots feared the landing.
British troops were poised at the ready on one end of the territorys Kowloon Peninsula. From a nearby hill we could see Chinese communist soldiers across the border in the same tense pose. Fighter planes of Chiang Kai Sheks Nationalist air force patrolled the skies ready to shoot down any communist challengers.
Hong Kong in 1950 was a bargain-hunters paradise and a notable center of international intrigue and espionage. Gen. Claire Chenault of Flying Tigers fame resided with his bride Anna at the Peninsula Hotel, then one of Hong Kongs few first-class establishments. I interviewed him there.
A ramshackle rail line from Hong Kong to Canton served the then-modest trade between the colony and mainland China. Chinese and British crews exchanged control at the border.
ast forward to 1997. Everything but the geography here has changed, dramatically.
The rail connection to the mainland is now state-of-the-art modern, carrying thousands of passengers. Speedy hydrofoil boats carry thousands more. Millions of visitors and travelers arrive at Hong Kongs international airport, soon to be replaced by the even larger, $20 billion Chek Lap Kok airport, built to accommodate 35 million passengers a year.
And more change is on the way. At midnight on June 30, Britains Union Jack was hauled down and replaced with Chinas red banner. Hong Kong, a British colony since 1841 and now a gleaming monument to capitalist success, became the special province of a China still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. The world watches as it begins testing Beijings promise of one country, two systems.
But, in truth, Hong Kong already has seen such dramatic change in recent years that the change in national flags proved less than traumatic. The changeover was basically ceremonial, despite doomsday predictions to the contrary. We have had British rule but we actually have been Chinese for years, explained one Hong Kong official.
For many Chinese here and elsewhere, the ceremonial turnover symbolized an end to the humiliation China suffered in the 19th-century opium wars that prompted Britain to seize Hong Kong as one of the spoils of victory.
Much has been written about out-migra-tion from Hong Kong, Chinese moving abroad to escape Beijings rule. But among the new special provinces bigger problems under Chinese sovereignty will be controlling immigration from mainland China into this economic dynamo. Countless thousands, if not millions, wait to taste the riches of Hong Kong. Many here describe the anticipated problem as similar to the chronic illegal immigration along the United States- Mexico border. What has happened in Hong Kong thus far fitted the pattern USC President Steve Sample and trustees observed in April meetings with the new governor, Tung Che-Wah, and other top business, financial and Trojan alumni leaders. In a one-hour personal discussion with USC trustees, Tung promised free elections next year.
eyond Hong Kong, change is the rule throughout much of Asia. Many former Marines and Navy men recall being stationed in pre-communist Shanghai, where much activity centered around a closed international enclave and the Bund along the banks of the Huangpu and Yangtze rivers.
The area still resembles a colonial Western enclave in the heart of China. It retains its charm but in a deteriorated form. It has grown shabby.
Little except the communist government that seized it had changed in Shang-hai from the days of a foreign domination until I first visited there with Henry Kissinger in 1972, and later with a University of Southern California trustee delegation in 1977. Security was tight, but the area looked distinctly Western.
Todays Shanghai is very different.
This city of 14 million has ambitions to become Chinas major international financial center. Instead of restoring the crumbling infrastructure of the old city, Shanghai authorities are building an entirely new Pudong Economic Develop-ment Zone which includes factories, apartments, sparkling hotels, giant freeways and an 80,000-seat stadium. Chinas government considers it a showplace.
he world has been amazed by the free market growth in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But I find the economic change in East Asia far more dramatic.
For a few years after President Richard Nixons historic diplomatic breakthrough with China in 1972, Americans were enthralled with Asia. China in particular became a major center of interest for travelers, business types and, most significantly, for the United States government.
In recent years, however, Washingtons focus has been on Europe and the Middle East. The startling economic growth in Asia has been given far too little attention by the U.S. government. Not surprisingly, both foreign and American business leaders in Asia are critical of what they call inconsistency and critical neglect of Asia at what may be the most important time for American interests in the Orient since the Nixon era.
The most positive U.S. outlook regarding present-day Asia stems from growing West Coast attention toward the Pacific Rim. The rest of the nation, including the White House, remains focused primarily across the Atlantic, not the Pacific.
Schools such as USC and UC San Diego have instituted special Asian study departments. These have attracted students from Asia as well as America. Presidents of 20 universities met at USC this spring to form the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. They plan to accelerate student exchanges with more Americans going to Asia. Sample is the new chairman of that group.
Cities and ports such as San Diego, Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco and Los Angeles have adopted major Pacific Rim strategies. Under Gov. Pete Wilson, California operates trade offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Jakarta and several other Asian capitals.
Meanwhile, Japan, China, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and even India and Vietnam, among other Asian nations, have made trade a keystone of their economic strategy. This gives them a weighty national advantage as opposed to the United States mostly regional economic forays into the Pacific. Asia for the Asians is finally more than a slogan.