Hong Kong delegation back-pedals on reform

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A GROUP of nine Hong Kong legislators who nearly four years ago appealed to Britain for more democracy begin a series of meetings in London today pleading for less democracy so as to ensure a smooth transition to Chinese rule when Hong Kong ceases to be British in 1997.

Such is the nature of colonialism and China's power that the about-turn is supported by the very people London assumed during the 1980s were its most loyal servants. The leader of the group, Allan Lee, was appointed to Hong Kong's legislative council 15 years ago. He led a delegation to Downing Street in November, 1989, a few months after the crushing of China's democracy movement, arguing that Britain had a moral responsibility to ensure Hong Kong's future and urging Mrs Thatcher that, as a first step, she must greatly increase the number of directly elected seats to the council. Furthermore, they said, London should allow Hong Kong greater autonomy.

'Hong Kong, alone among Britain's colonies, has been deprived of the basic human right of self-determination and the right to democratic government,' Mr Lee declared at that time.

Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, appointed last July, was unable to give Hong Kong self- determination but has gone a long way to giving it democracy. By behaving as if he were a Chinese Communist he stuck to the letter of China's Basic Law for Hong Kong in 1997 but ran amok with its spirit. Using the Basic Law framework and the Joint Declaration between Britain and China, which asserts Hong Kong's right to autonomy under China's sovereignty for 50 years, he has proposed a wide range of democratic reforms that will guarantee everyone in Hong Kong some form of vote.

The proposals have outraged Peking, which has demanded their withdrawal. Peking's anger is directed as much against Mr Patten's cleverness as against the changes. For by insisting that they be approved, amended or rejected by the Legislative Council Mr Patten is giving the council an authority far beyond its present rubber-stamp role which Peking wants to maintain. The proposals go before the council next month.

In effect, Mr Patten is making Hong Kong's parliament sovereign, not its governor, whether British now or Chinese in the future. It is a precedent which China will fight tooth and nail.

It is against this background that Mr Lee and his colleagues from the Co-operative Resources Centre (CRC) - the term for their fledgling political party - are coming to London. They are fearful of China but they are also fearful of the people of Hong Kong who have shown in opinion polls that they back the proposed widening of the franchise. They are caught in the middle so they have turned to London. Mr Lee's party wants the Prime Minister to intervene; it wants Mr Patten's plans watered down and London, above all, to take back responsibility for Hong Kong's future.

They are seeing an impressive collection of people during their three days of meetings in London. Top of the list are John Major and Douglas Hurd, who, the Foreign Office says in its usual blandness, will restate at their meeting tomorrow the Prime Minister's commitment to Mr Patten and the importance Britain puts on co-operating with China to ensure a smooth transfer in Hong Kong. They meet senior officials from the Labour Party, key figures at Westminister involved with Hong Kong, and above all Mr Patten's greatest critics, those old China hands from the kowtow school of diplomacy - Sir Percy Craddock, Lord MacLehose and Lord Wilson; former Hong Kong governors; ex-ambassadors to Peking; and ex-Downing Street foreign policy advisers.

Mr Lee, his colleagues and Mr Patten, too, when he next visits Britain, would be advised to go to the British Museum where an exhibition marks Britain's first embassy to China 200 years ago. Whether they arrive with fresh ideas, hopeful of trade, joint ventures and change, China cares not. The script is already written. The barbarians are to be hurried on their way and ignored. It could be 1997, not 1793.