SAY what you will about colonialism, the British did pretty well at it. They ruled their far-flung colonies with a sense of order and, for the most part, fairness. When the time came to leave they departed with dignity, leaving behind the instruments for self-government.
Would that their pending departure from Hong Kong be as reputable a chapter in the history of their declining empire. Alas, unless there is a major change in the leadership of China before Hong Kong is turned over to the communist mainland in 1997, the British exodus from Hong Kong will be a rather shameful affair.
Elsewhere around the world, millions of people are emerging from communism's maw into the sunshine of liberty. Unless something changes, 6 million Chinese who have enjoyed free-wheeling free enterprise in Hong Kong will be heading in the opposite direction, consigned to the darkness of communism as practised by the obdurate regime in Beijing.
The British colony of Hong Kong is made up of three parts. There is Hong Kong island itself, a ferry ride from the mainland. Across the water on the mainland is Kowloon, and beyond that, further inland, the New Territories. These have all been ruled as a British colony. China proper starts where the New Territories end.
The New Territories have been leased by Britain from China and the lease expires in 1997. Kowloon and Hong Kong island were ceded to Britain by China in the 19th century and could theoretically have remained British. Perhaps they should have in light of the shoddy way the current Beijing regime promises to treat them. But back in 1982 when British Prime Minister Thatcher started negotiating with the Chinese, they were in a more smiling and cooperative mood. The British argument was that Kowloon and Hong Kong island are not viable entities without the New Territories, so it was agreed that the whole lot will be returned to China seven years from now.
China made all kinds of promises about preserving the free enterprise character of Hong Kong and recognizing the rights of its people after the British leave. But as the Beijing regime has become increasingly repressive in China itself, and more threatening in its talk of how it plans to run Hong Kong, the promises have seemed increasingly hollow. Many of Hong Kong's citizens are already refugees from the mainland, and communism. Now they are busy figuring out how and where to flee to avoid communism again.
Mrs. Thatcher, who once sent an armada to defend the Falkland Islanders against Argentina, has shown little stomach for a showdown with the Chinese over Hong Kong. True, Hong Kong is militarily indefensible against a determined drive from the mainland. But there has been no British move to rescind the agreement and the British lion has rolled over and played pussycat even on the political front; it has let Beijing dictate a constitution for post-1997 Hong Kong which provides that only one-third of a local legislature will be democratically elected. At least Hong Kong's citizens could have been given some political shield with which to hold their coming new rulers at bay.
Mrs. Thatcher has a plan to give 50,000 Hong Kong Chinese families the right to move to Britain if the coming communist rule of Hong Kong proves too oppressive.
But so intransigent is Beijing that it is threatening to veto even this by refusing to recognize foreign passports held by Hong Kong Chinese.
So the outlook for Hong Kong's Chinese is not good. Many of them are figuring how to get out before the communists come. Hong Kong's economic vibrancy after Beijing takes over seems in peril.
Of course, there could before 1997 be a coup in Beijing and the installation of a more benevolent government. If that does not happen, the international community could rally round and offer sanctuary to those who want to leave Hong Kong.
But for now the prospect is a gloomy one and the final dissolution of Britain's empire seems destined to end on a sadly embarrassing note.