LONDON — BRITISH government officials in London face a dilemma in their attempts to shape the future of Hong Kong in the run-up to its scheduled return to China in 1997.Direct elections in the territory held two weeks ago produced a string of victories for candidates eager to take political initiatives of their own. But London wants to keep a firm grip on Hong Kong until Beijing assumes sovereignty. Prime Minister John Major, according to senior sources in Britain's ruling Conservative party, thinks the two interests could be kept in balance by appointing a new governor of Hong Kong. Two leading candidates for the job are former Foreign Secretary David Owen and former Deputy Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Howe. Britain's next representative in the territory will succeed Sir David Wilson, the incumbent, probably next year. One of the new governor's prime tasks will be to improve the prospects for continuing capitalism in Hong Kong for at least half a century after the return. Highly-placed Conservative party sources say Mr. Wilson, a former diplomat, lacks the clout to resist heavy pressures from Beijing and also may have difficulty handling pressures from Hong Kong's newly-elected politicians. After Major's return from a visit to Hong Kong on Sept. 2, Downing Street officials hinted that the prime minister thought Wilson's attitude toward China was too conciliatory. Those officials' comments appeared later in British newspapers. The influential Economist magazine said in an editorial Sept. 14: "Sir David, admirable diplomat and Sinologist though he is, is no longer right for the job." The Economist suggested that "an outsider" should be the next governor, adding: "That outsider should be a politician." Before Major visited Hong Kong, he signed an agreement with Chinese leaders in Beijing to build a new airport in the territory. Downing Street sources said Major resented having to visit China, because he thought Wilson should have been able to conclude the airport negotiation himself. Dr. Owen is the frontrunner for the governor's job. He has announced that he will not be contesting his parliamentary seat at the coming general election. A tough-minded, often abrasive figure, Owen has the political stature to represent the British government in Hong Kong. He refuses to say whether he would be willing to take on the job, but close associates say he would almost certainly accept if it were offered to him. Sir Geoffrey Howe is of equal stature, but in contrast to Owen, he is seen as suave and understated. His tenure as foreign secretary under Margaret Thatcher, however, may count against him. He held that post when the former prime minister transacted the agreement to hand Hong Kong over to China in 1984. In the territory, opponents of the agreement see Howe as less likely than Owen to defend their interests vigorously. Should the opposition Labour Party win the next general election, advisors to party leader Neil Kinnock say he also supports appointing a strong, politically-minded governor to see Hong Kong through to 1997. His favored candidate is Denis Healey, a former chancellor of the exchequer and defense minister. He will not be running in the general election either.