Leading Article: Another Chinese outburst

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CHINA'S Prime Minister, Li Peng, has greeted the publication of Chris Patten's proposals for greater democracy in Hong Kong with the expected dose of vitriol. Equally predictably, the colony's turbulent stock market took fright yesterday as a result. The political and financial reactions were similar when Chris Patten first outlined his intentions six months ago. But the Governor had little choice. As he told Hong Kong's Legislative Council on Friday, he would have been guilty of indecisiveness had he once again postponed publication of his plans. Peking has managed to string him along for months, without either tabling its own ideas or even setting a date for talking about the Governor's plans. He was right, therefore, to publish and be damned.

Now, though, Mr Patten has a problem. With only four years to go before China regains the territory, Peking can intimidate Hong Kong and its inhabitants. It has long threatened to revoke contracts entered into by the colony's government between now and 1997 if it considers them contrary to the Basic Law that will serve as the Hong Kong constitution thereafter. It has another weapon, too: after Britain's mealy-mouthed refusal in 1990 to offer all Hong Kong's people the right of UK residence, China knows the embarrassment that could be caused in London by a flood of refugees from the colony.

Happily, Mr Patten's presence seems to have stiffened British resolve. His proposals were pitched to increase democracy in Hong Kong - direct election for half the 60 members of the Legislative Council, and a broadening of the franchise from 180,000 to 2.7 million people - but obey the letter of Britain's agreements with China. London can be confident that all the colony's inhabitants but the basest appeasers will support its demand to include Hong Kong officials in the talks, for that is already established practice. And the response to the Li Peng outburst has been measured in both Hong Kong and Whitehall.

In the long run, the row may help to clarify the issues. China was never likely to accept Mr Patten's proposals as they stand. Had he been led into private negotiations before publishing them, he might have had to pull out. Now the rift is open: the Bill will be presented to the Legislative Council and passed, if the Foreign Secretary is right, before it rises for its summer recess in July.

Few will wish to predict whether China will in the end be induced to accept it. But the Chinese should take note of one thing. In the past, the colony was overwhelmingly a money-making city - and its citizens seemed less concerned about democracy after 1997 than about the harm that might be done to their livelihoods by a row between Britain and China. That may no longer be the case today. The Tiananmen Square massacre has reminded many inhabitants of Hong Kong that without some kind of democracy, it may be their lives that are at risk, not just their wallets.