Leading Article: Trade speaks loudest as Brown courts Peking

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The Independent Online
THE timing was striking, if probably coincidental. On Tuesday, Ron Brown, the US Commerce Secretary, declared himself 'exhilarated' by the business deals already clinched on his trade mission to China. Yesterday the National People's Congress issued a formal regulation to abolish Hong Kong's three-tier legislature when China takes over the colony in 1997.

In doing so it undertook to dismantle the modest package of democratic reforms pushed through by the Governor, Chris Patten, in the face of violent abuse from Peking; and it destroyed the concept of the 'through train', under which the colony's more representative legislatures, to be elected later this month and next year, would serve until new elections in 1999.

As if to emphasise their contempt for American lectures on human rights and British rhetoric about democracy, the Peking authorities detained and roughed up a leading dissident, Wang Dan, before releasing him. Their actions spoke louder than Mr Brown's announcement that the human rights dialogue between Washington and Peking is to be resumed this month. In May, the US administration broke its link between that issue and commercial policy. On Monday, Mr Brown felt able to say that 'China's long history is deserving of respect, and even deference, that she has not always received'.

There was nothing surprising or unexpected in the formalising of Peking's oft-voiced intention to scrap any constitutional arrangement that, in its view, breached earlier agreements with Britain; and it was only the intensity of Mr Brown's enthusiasm that was remarkable. Together they reflect Peking's confidence that the world will continue to beat a path to the largest potential market and fastest-growing economy in the world, regardless of how it behaves.

Mr Patten can comfort himself that his reforms will give the people of Hong Kong a taste of something closer to democracy, and that it will not be in China's interests to initiate changes likely to disrupt an economy so intertwined with the mainland's. It is the leadership's assessments of those interests that will govern China's actions in the interim. The higher the stakes in terms of trade with the West, the more rational and less maverick its behaviour is likely to be.