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China attacks HK conglomerate

CHINA HAS turned its wrath on the 'princely hong' of Hong Kong, the Jardine Matheson company, lambasting it for recent 'ironic and pitiful' support for planned political reforms in the colony and assailing its historical origins as one of the largest opium traders of the 1830s.

Without naming the company, an official editorial carried in yesterday's People's Daily pin-pointed the territory's oldest hong - the Cantonese word for trading house - for craving 'nothing but chaos' for Hong Kong. It added: 'Yelling about democracy by a conglomerate which grew along with colonial dictatorship is not only ironic and pitiful but the plot under that democratic mask is ugly.'

For China the conglomerate is an ideal target: first, it is the only large British-linked company that has risked publicly commenting on the proposed electoral reforms of the Governor, Chris Patten, and, secondly, its early history is one of large profit at China's expense, selling opium.

The first signs yesterday, however, were that Peking's latest salvo in its war of words against Mr Patten may have slightly backfired. Even conservative local politicians, who do not back the Patten proposals, said they thought China might have gone too far this time. Jardine's shares have fallen 12 per cent in two days and yesterday dragged the Hang Seng index down 137 points.

In Hong Kong yesterday the company said it was 'business as usual'. Mr Patten yesterday said pointedly that he 'would never attack an important Hong Kong employer'. While Jardines has hardly been 'yelling about democracy', it has in recent weeks offered carefully worded encouragement to Mr Patten.

Charles Powell, a director of the main holding company and a former foreign policy adviser to Mrs Thatcher, was quoted earlier this month as saying the company supported Mr Patten's efforts to promote democracy - but he added that this could only be done in agreement with China. While some of the colony's pro-Peking businessmen have been vocal in siding with China recently, there has been very little public support from business for Mr Patten.

The historical bent of China's attack again highlights its approach that standing up to Mr Patten is but the last chapter in seeking revenge for the 'unequal treaties' of 1842, 1860 and 1898 that forced China to cede Hong Kong to the British. In Hong Kong, one of the Peking- controlled newspapers is running a feature series on the sunset years of the British empire.