BEIJING -- China's craze for books on current affairs has filled bookstores with volumes on wars and famines, trade disputes and dictators. But the topic that is probably the most important to China this decade is ignored: Hong Kong's return next year to Chinese rule after 150 years under the Union Jack.
It isn't as though Beijing were purposefully ignoring Hong Kong. Under government orders, China is being flooded with television specials, radio shows, photo exhibitions, new textbooks, even a game show, all designed to interest people in Hong Kong's return.
The problem, as China's profit-sensitive publishers know, is that few ordinary people are interested in Hong Kong. Diplomats and business people may rejoice to have Hong Kong back in the motherland's embrace, but most Chinese are indifferent.
"What does that have to do with me?" said a young woman thumbing through books at a busy Beijing bookstall. "Who cares about Hong Kong?"
Resentment of Hong Kong's success has diminished some people's interest. Others view Hong Kong as a distant land, or as an independent country like Singapore. Many are simply turned off by the propaganda efforts.
"Ordinary people are not aware of the Hong Kong issue," said a Chinese sociologist who tracks public concerns with opinion polls. "It doesn't register on our polls."
Little wonder. For decades, Hong Kong was ignored as a shameful relic of colonialism. In academic circles, only two think tanks have scholars focused on Hong Kong. No high-level government agency represents Hong Kong's interests.
Nie Jianzhong is trying to change this information deficit. He is publishing a series of 100 books called "Discussion of National Affairs." He has printed 20,000 copies of the two volumes devoted to Hong Kong.
But Nie admits that before he started the project, he knew little about Hong Kong.
"We never learned much about Hong Kong in school except that it was stolen from us in the Opium War," Nie said. "That it was such a modern city was surprising."
Nie's two titles have little competition. Although books on current affairs are growing in popularity, Beijing's booksellers believe they have a better chance of selling biographies of famous Chinese or tracts bashing the United States.
"No demand for books on Hong Kong," said Liu Xinzhong, a bookseller at a street in western Beijing crowded with stalls. "Hong Kong kung fu novels, yes, but nothing on the city's return to China."
Several trends are at work in the ho-hum attitude toward the end of British colonialism in China. For one, its return has little to do with China's new-found self-confidence or standing in international affairs.
Hong Kong returns to China after decades in which China could have easily retaken the British colony but was too consumed with internal turmoil to pay it much attention.
Britain itself brought up the issue in the late 1970s. The 99-year lease that it signed with China in 1898 was due to expire in 1997 and local landlords were wondering if they should still be signing 20-year property leases.
Viewed as foreign country
The years of separation have led many Chinese to view Hong Kong as a foreign country. Chinese need visas to enter -- as they will even after the handover -- while Hong Kong's citizens are so wealthy that they are sometimes treated like foreigners when they visit China.
Even China's government-run media have had to be warned to stop referring to Hong Kong as though it were a country. A circular issued by the propaganda ministry forbade the use of terms such as "Sino-Hong Kong joint venture," which equates Hong Kong with a country. Instead, "Sino" should be replaced with a city name, as in "Beijing-Hong Kong joint venture," the circular ordered.
There is also a popular song with this reminder:
Hong Kong is a part of China
China has the Yellow River and the Yangtze.
And it has Hong Kong, too.
Perhaps the confusion and indifference is due to the government's propaganda effort itself.
One of the strangest efforts involves a game show called "Hong Kong Knowledge." Due to be aired next year, the three-part program is designed to test mainlanders' knowledge of Hong Kong -- and show, of course, that everyone is well-informed about the world financial center of 6 million people.
Producers freely admit, however, that the show is pretty boring, that the outcome is rigged and that the Communist Party had to organize a letter-writing campaign to prove that the masses are aching to watch it.
Real excitement isn't needed to generate high ratings because advertising has been eschewed, said producer Tian Yongming. The $125,000 production budget -- a record for a Chinese quiz show -- is being picked up by the central government.
"Quiz shows in China are not like quiz shows in other countries," Tian said. "Here we combine political information with entertainment to let people know more about politics."
Written versions of the quiz have already been printed in People's Daily, the party newspaper, and officials have been busy filling them out and sending them in. Tian has received 150,000 so far, which is hailed as proof of the populace's enthusiasm.
And in case anyone doesn't know the answers, the show has published 20,000 copies of a book with sample questions and answers.
The answers may come in handy.
Opinion surveys in big Chinese cities show that few understand how Hong Kong works.
People believe, for example, that the most popular newspapers are pro-Beijing, that Hong Kong has no democracy and that it is crime-ridden -- none of which is true.
The most popular newspaper is Apple Daily, a paper sharply critical of Beijing; Hong Kong's legislature is democratically elected -- albeit only for the first time last year -- and it is a relatively safe city with little of the corruption besetting China.
Pub Date: 12/02/96