Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, and politicians of all factions reacted with shock and anger yesterday to the disclosure of a Chinese plan to set up a shadow government and legislature six months before the end of British rule in 1997.
China has said already that it will dismantle the current legislature once it takes power and has threatened to abolish human rights laws it dislikes. However, Peking officials have been careful never to suggest the establishment of Chinese institutions before the transfer of power. The new plan was revealed in a speech on Tuesday night by Sir Sze-yuen Chung, 78. He was previously the senior non-government adviser to the Governor but is now a key adviser to Peking on Hong Kong, and is talked of as leader of the first administration under Chinese sovereignty.
Sir Sze-yuen candidly stated: "It is inevitable that a shadow government will appear prior to the transfer of power." He said "a few hundred staff" would be employed in a provisional government secretariat. He admitted no legal basis had been laid for a parallel legislature but said the National People's Congress, China's parliament, could easily pass such legislation.
Mr Patten, visibly angered, made it clear yesterday that "there will be only one government in Hong Kong before 1 July 1997". He emphasised that the current administration was prepared to co-operate with the incoming government "but we certainly won't be prepared to consider anything which could lead to divided loyalties among civil servants or result in confusion or in eroding the effectiveness of government as a whole".
Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong's largest political party, the Democratic Party, said: "Of all the proposals from China this is the real shocker. Frankly, I cannot see how it can work."
Less predictable opposition came from Chan Yuen-han, a legislator representing the Peking-backed Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. Allen Lee, leader of the Liberal Party, an adviser to the Chinese government, said the proposals were "not in the interests of Hong Kong people".
Sir Sze-yuen also outlined a method by which China could have the head of the new administration chosen without an election. The mini-constitution for the new Hong Kong says that the choice should be made by a 400-strong election committee, but Sir Sze-yuen said leeway existed for a less cumbersome process.
He said that in the six-month overlapping period the parallel legislature would establish procedures to appoint the Chief Justice and court of final appeal, abolish laws which are viewed as contradicting the mini-constitution and adopt a budget for the coming year. All discussions between Britain and China have been based on the assumption that the budget of the outgoing colonial administration would remain in place for the rest of the financial year. It had also been assumed that judicial appointments would be made before 1997 and remain in place afterwards.
One of the few public figures to support the proposals was the pro-China trade unionist Tam Yiu-chung. He said a shadow government was "inevitable during a transfer of power" and nothing to worry about. "We need to start working and not wait until the handover."
In the past 12 months China has been increasingly assertive about what it wants to do in Hong Kong after 1997. Past attempts to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people appear to have been abandoned in favour of making it clear where the new power lies.