BEIJING — IN an apparent attempt to revive its credibility, Britain has indicated that it will resist efforts by China to hinder democratic reform in Hong Kong. The assurances by Britain are a rebuff to rising criticism from Beijing. China has persistently attacked initiatives aimed at fulfilling Britain's pledge that Hong Kong society will remain free and open after it comes under Chinese rule in 1997.
``We are not going to sit back passively, as the British government, and let the clock tick on until 1997,'' said Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd on his arrival in Hong Kong for a four-day visit that ends today.
Hong Kong legislators and academicians, however, voiced skepticism that Britain will risk damaging its relations with China by advancing bold democratic reforms in the colony. ``We've seen Britain back off from promises on democratic reform and bow to Beijing time and time again,'' John Burns, a political scientist at Hong Kong University, said yesterday.
The British-controlled Hong Kong government, in the face of criticism from Beijing, delayed the initiation of a bill of rights. It has recently censored films that Beijing deems politically offensive, and it promised that the territory will not be used as a base of subversion against the communist regime.
The appearance of British weakness has intensified a crisis of confidence in Hong Kong prompted by the June 3-4 massacre of liberal protesters in Beijing.
Many of the estimated 55,000 Hong Kong residents who will emigrate this year fear that Britain will not stand up to the hard-line Beijing regime. They say that China's conservative leadership will restrain the free-wheeling ways that have made the capitalist enclave the second-richest society in Asia after Japan, say the legislators and academicians.
Attempting in part to stem the flight from Hong Kong, Mr. Hurd said that Britain will soon announce a plan providing the colony with a more democratic legislature in 1991.
The statement implies that Britain rather than China will decide the pace of democratic reform in Hong Kong for at least the near term.
Hurd's comment also seemed aimed at dispelling concerns that Britain will allow China to dictate Hong Kong's political future in a constitution for the territory that the mainland will finalize in March. His comment followed reports of sharp exchanges in Beijing last week between the Hong Kong governor, Sir David Wilson, and Chinese diplomats over the pace of democratic change.
``Hurd and Wilson are fundamentally attempting to protect the legitimacy of British rule by trying to restore confidence in the Hong Kong government,'' said Dr. Burns. ``Their efforts boil down to the question of sovereignty; whether Britain will hand over actual control of Hong Kong to China before 1997.''
The final draft of Hong Kong's post-1997 Basic Law, or constitution, will gauge the success of Britain's new assertiveness, say legislators and scholars. A committee appointed by China will reconvene in Guangzhou this week to put the finishing touches on the territory's future constitution.
The drafters of the law last month declared that only 18 seats in Hong Kong's 60-member legislature should be directly elected after 1997.
The move was an affront to the current council, which has called for faster and deeper democratic reforms: one-third (or 20) elected directly by 1991, half by 1997, two-thirds by 1999, and all by 2003.
The Basic Law committee called for limits on the powers of people who hold foreign passports and ostensibly would be less compliant under Beijing's rule. The move was a prelude to condemnations by Beijing last month of a British plan to grant the right of abode to 225,000 Hong Kong residents.
Finally, in the most disturbing sign for basic freedoms in Hong Kong, the drafters have said that a bill of rights would be subordinate to the Basic Law.