Peking starts war of words over HK plans

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The Independent Online
CHINA issued its first official salvoes at Chris Patten's proposals for increased democracy in Hong Kong yesterday, the start of a war of words that is likely to last for months. In Peking, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wu Jianmin, said China was 'deeply disturbed' at the new Governor's constitutional package and that it was inconsistent with the Sino- British Joint Declaration on the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

Juggling Hong Kong housing statistics with sideswipes at Peking, Mr Patten launched into a marathon of phone-ins and public meetings to win backing for the democratic reforms and public spending plans that he announced this week as the blueprint for the final years of British colonial rule.

Mr Wu said that the Chinese side 'wishes to point out in all seriousness that if the evolution of the political system in Hong Kong during the transition period is not consistent with the Basic Law (China's post-1997 mini-constitution for Hong Kong), the Chinese side will not be responsible.'

One of the Peking-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong warned that, without Chinese support, 'the rose garden could be turned into ashes under the controversy stirred up by Patten'. Another paper quoted the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director, Lu Ping, as describing Wednesday's proposals, which also included big investments in education, housing, social welfare and the environment, as 'socialist'. 'As a socialist, I am worrying for the capitalists in Hong Kong, as what the Governor is proposing is just like practising socialism.'

Starting the day with a 90- minute, live, bilingual phone-in, Mr Patten maintained that all his plans to increase voter participation in the 1995 elections of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco) were consistent with the Basic Law. 'If there are other proposals which people want to bring forward, including Chinese officials, which are in their view consistent with the Basic Law but also meeting our obligations to make some changes in 1995, then let's see them on the table.'

By the time he reached Legco, in the early afternoon, for the inaugural Governor's question time with the councillors, Mr Patten was also hinting that Hong Kong might be forced to take a tougher line over the airport. If the deadlock persisted, he said, 'we (would) certainly reach a time when we would need to look fairly radically at the options in taking the project forward'.

Mr Patten indicated that wrangling with Peking over constitutional changes would not be allowed to run on in the way that the airport talks had, and that he hoped to put his final proposals to Legco by next spring.

By 5.45pm, visibly tiring, Mr Patten faced 1,500 Hong Kong residents at the first of his sell-out public meetings. Questions about youth social services, relocation compensation, and primary school development vied with accusations that it was historically inevitable that the British departure from Hong Kong in 1997 would be 'dishonourable'.

'I don't want to see you make a mess in Hong Kong,' warned one man worried about the Chinese reaction to Mr Patten's push for democracy.