Thr fury of a dragon scorned: The story of the Empire may have a shabby ending, warns Emily Lau, of Hong Kong's Legislative Council

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The Independent Online
AS CHINA steps up its relentless pressure to block the Hong Kong people's demand for more democracy, the fate of Britain's largest remaining colony hangs in the balance.

The latest bombshell from the Chinese Communists - the threat to invalidate contracts, leases and agreements that have not been approved by the Chinese government - comes despite the stipulation in the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration, and the Hong Kong Basic Law, that laws and contracts will be recognised and protected by the Hong Kong special administrative region after 1997.

China's hysterical reactions to Chris Patten's modest political reforms underline its determination to exert total political control over the colony. It has been aided and abetted by Britain, which has repeatedly succumbed to China's unreasonable and dictatorial demands.

I am one of those who never subscribed to the theory that Peking will not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. No doubt it wants a prosperous and stable Hong Kong, but it wants it on its own terms. If ever it feels that its control of Hong Kong is threatened, it will do anything to get its way, whatever the price.

The bombshell on leases has plunged the colony into a mini-crisis. Should the Hong Kong people continue to press for democratic reforms and force China to abide by the joint declaration's promise of giving Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, or should they roll over, play dead and not risk an open confrontation with Peking?

Many Hong Kong people want quicker moves towards democracy but are reluctant to support the colonial administration because of Britain's record of selling them down the river. Mr Patten will have to pull a few rabbits out of the hat if he is to convince the Hong Kong people of Britain's sincerity and commitment.

Answering questions in the Legislative Council on Tuesday, Mr Patten said that Britain's moral responsibility for Hong Kong would continue for 50 years after 1997, the period covered by the joint declaration. However, he was unable to reassure the Hong Kong people exactly what that moral responsibility means. His reply sounded unconvincing and he failed to dispel people's cynicism and hostility towards Britain.

Britain's responsibility for its subjects in Hong Kong is unshirkable. Those who do not want to be handed over to Chinese Communist rule must be given a way out. Britain cannot turn its back on its own citizens.

Things will come to a head in the coming weeks as Hong Kong fights for a last chance to secure a drop of democracy before the British pull out. The stakes are high - not only for the six million people, but also for Mr Patten. If the Chinese government succeeds in forcing Mr Patten to withdraw or dilute his proposals, the morale of the colony will be dealt a devastating blow. The Governor might as well return to London, since he would not be able to govern Hong Kong effectively. In fact, no British governor would be able to run the colony in the face of capitulation and humiliation.

Her Majesty's Government should start thinking seriously about what help and support it can offer its beleaguered subjects in the colony. The Chinese have blatantly ripped apart the joint declaration and Britain has been able to do little apart from wringing its hands in despair. Developments in the coming weeks will determine whether the final chapter of the history of the British Empire is going to end in a shabby way.