Leading Article: China's dilemma over Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
THE Chinese government in Peking and Britain's colonial government in Hong Kong seem to be moving towards prolonged hostilities. Yesterday the colony's governor, Chris Patten, finally announced he would push ahead with the least controversial parts of his plan to enable Hong Kong's people to elect a majority of members of the colony's legislature.

The reaction from Peking was, as predicted, to threaten to break off talks with Britain about Mr Patten's proposals. These discussions have gone through 17 largely fruitless rounds, agreement being reached only on a lowering of the voting age to 18 (already the norm in China itself). Mr Patten, by contrast, yesterday expressed the hope that the talks would continue, saying: 'If we disagree on some things, that is no reason to disagree on everything.'

At the heart of the dispute is the question of who will be in the majority in the Legislative Council (Legco) when the colony reverts to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Will it be the pro-democracy camp, as Peking fears, or pro-Peking loyalists?

One potential casualty is the concept of the 'through train', under which the Legco elected in 1995 is supposed to stay in office not just through the transfer of power but into 1999. If the rules under which Legco is elected have not been approved by the Chinese, they are likely to dissolve the council when they assume control in 1997 and arrange for it to be replaced by one packed with those they can control.

A more immediate concern is the extent to which the mainland Chinese will seek to disrupt the colony's economic and political life should Mr Patten press on regardless with his legislative programme. Peking's tactics will require a fine calculation of national interests. To tolerate a growing democracy movement in Hong Kong might encourage their own dissidents. Yet to be seen to be waging a destructive propaganda war against the immensely prosperous colony would be counter-productive.

Daily, the economies of the colonial David and the Chinese Goliath grow more intertwined. Chinese investment in Hong Kong companies, stocks and shares and property is huge. So is Hong Kong investment in China's frenziedly booming special economic zone of Guangdong. To put these at risk would be a case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Two other important considerations will loom large in Chinese calculations: relations with the United States, and hopes of a peaceful reunification one day with that other and larger lost limb, Taiwan.

With the stain of the June 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square fading from public memory, it seems unlikely - though not impossible - that China will want to risk returning to the status of international pariah, either in the run-up to 1997 or in the immediate aftermath of the historic handover. Hong Kong's move towards democracy is pathetically belated. But the odds seem to favour Mr Patten getting away with a diluted version of his proposals.