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AUSTRALIA AMBIVALENT AT PROSPECT OF A MASS INFLUX FROM HONG KONG

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In this beer-swilling city of 65,000, where "No worries, mate!" is the standard retort to any vexing situation, a cultural and economic coup d'etat may be in the offing. Hong Kong developers acting under the auspices of a group called the Right of Abode Delegation (ROAD) have targeted this nondescript frontier outpost as a possible sanctuary for Hong Kong residents and their industries.

Boasting a stable political environment and an abundance of cheap land, Darwin would appear, at first glance, an ideal destination for Hong Kong refugees. But political and physical obstacles may dampen their initial enthusiasm.To begin with, the prospect of 500,000 former Hong Kong residents arriving in Darwin before the British colony's reversion to Chinese rule in 1997 has created alarm among local residents. Although this is a young and racially tolerant community, many Darwinians blanch at the idea of absorbing so many Asian immigrants in so short a time.

Moreover, Northern Australians are bothered by what the refugees reportedly plan to do once they settle here. According to Northern Territory News correspondent Frank Alcorta, Hong Kong developers have more in mind than a makeshift investment scheme. Their overriding aim, Alcorta stated, is nothing less than a new homeland.

Thus, some observers in Darwin speculate that ROAD members intend to recreate Hong Kong geographically as well as economically. If this is so, then Bathurst and Melville Islands, about 50 miles north and Darwin and comprising nearly 3,100 square miles, could figure prominently in their plans.

But even if the Australian government looked favorably on the idea of leasing the islands to Hong Kong developers, it would be barred from doing so by the 1976 Land Rights Act. This law was enactef to protect the rights of the islands' aboriginal inhabitants.

Although the statute gives the aborigines the right to lease their land with tacit government approval, Northern Land Council spokesman Michael Duffy insists the native peoples would never sell out. "The aboriginal attitude toward land is one of a collective responsibility toward the past," he said. "Even the most progressive aborigines feel it is just too high a price to pay."

The most feasible alternative to island development is an extension of Darwin's fledgling Trade Development Zone (TDZ). Northern Territory developers portray the advent of the zone as a conscientious decision to exploit the booming economies of Southeast Asia.

By establishing Australia's first free trade zone in 1985, the Northern Territory government aimed to lure export-oriented firms with a package of incentives that included duty-free import laws, tax exemptions and development grants.

Now, however, the Hong Kong wild card has made Darwin rethink its economic game plan. While informal discussions on "relocating" Hong Kong continue, the more modest objective of touting the Darwin area as a prudent choice for overseas investment tops the TDZ agenda. Northern Territory representatives are due to deliver this message during trade expositions in Hong Kong Nov. 1-5 and Shenzhen, China, Nov. 9-12.