China turns up heat over Hong Kong's top job

China's darkest suspicions over London's attempts to sabotage the post- colonial government in Hong Kong have roared to the surface again, with accusations that Britain is "meddling" in the process of selecting the territory's new head of government, to be known as chief executive.

China launched a two-pronged offensive yesterday as one of the colony's Peking-controlled newspapers accused Hugh Davies - head of the British team discussing transitional arrangements - of lobbying to secure the post for Anson Chan, Governor Chris Patten's deputy and chief secretary.

According to the Wen Wei Po newspaper, Britain is guilty of "still ignoring the coming of the year 1997 and still dreaming of extending the era of appointing their candidates as Hong Kong governor beyond 1997".

This was followed by a blast from Zhang Junsheng, senior spokesman for the Xinhua news agency, China's de facto embassy in Hong Kong. He said "the British side should not meddle in, and has no rights to poke its nose" into the selection of the chief executive, as this was "entirely a matter for China".

The Foreign Office spokes-man in Hong Kong described the accusation of meddling as "absurd", and pointed out that the selection process was "a matter for the people of Hong Kong".

What all this means is that China is making it crystal clear that Mrs Chan has no chance of being given the top job after Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule next year.

This is despite the fact that every single public opinion has ranked her as by far the most popular candidate for the post.

Although Britain denies meddling in the selection, it is well known that British officials, from the Governor down, are keen for Mrs Chan to secure the job.

But they have been careful to keep their support quiet, precisely because they know that any hint of British endorsement would be the kiss of death for her chances.

China has yet to formally indicate its choice of candidate for the post of chief executive, but all the signs are that Peking supports the shipping magnate Tung Che-hwa, though he refuses to confirm whether he is in the running.

Mr Tung's shipping company was saved from bankruptcy by Chinese funds after a long history of alliance with China's bitter rivals in Taiwan.

He recently resigned from the Governor's Executive Council, or cabinet, in a move seen as clearing the way for his candidature.

Also in the race is the controversial and widely disliked Lo Tak-shing, the only candidate who has had the courage to declare his candidacy.

Mr Lo is seen as the man backed by Chinese hardliners who want to impose strict control over Hong Kong.

His position appeared to be advanced when he was given space in the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily early this month. In a long article he outlined a chilling manifesto for the new order, in which he accused Britain of trying to destabilise Hong Kong ahead of the transfer of sovereignty.

He made it clear that democratic reforms would have to be rolled back, welfare spending cut and the education system changed to foster "patriotism and a love for one's race".

Mr Lo suggested political opponents would have no place in the new order.

"No Government can run smoothly amid meaningless political wrangles," he wrote, calling instead for "resolute and highly efficient" government.

The chief executive will be appointed by November. China is now in the process of forming a 400-strong committee to make the choice. It appears only four names will be allowed to go forward for consideration.

China points out that this method of selection introduces a higher degree of consultation into the process of choosing a head of government than was ever seen during a century-and-a-half of British rule, when governors were appointed in London.

However, there are strong doubts that the selection committee will do anything more than endorse a decision made in Peking.

For this reason Hong Kong's largest party, the Democratic Party, has refused to take part in the process, even though China has held out an olive branch to the party by inviting it to become involved.

A former Xinhua official has said the real choice of Hong Kong's first chief executive will be made by the Communist Party's most senior leaders, including President Jiang Zemin.

He is known to have taken an active interest in the matter and sent a strong signal of his preference by seeking Mr Tung out at a gathering of Chinese advisers in Peking and shaking his hand in front of the television cameras.