Britain-China Ties Strained by Proposed Hong Kong Reforms

CHINA is threatening to tear up its 1984 joint agreement on the hand-over of Hong Kong in 1997 unless Britain drops plans to put the colony on the road to democracy.

The public warning, which British diplomatic sources later described as the harshest comments on Hong Kong yet made by China, was issued in London Nov. 17 by Zhu Rongji, deputy prime minister in charge of China's economic reform program and a member of the country's Politburo. He followed it up in private talks with Prime Minister John Major the next day.

Mr. Zhu's tough comments came while Chris Patten, British governor of Hong Kong and author of the proposed democratic reforms, was in London for consultations. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd responded by firmly endorsing Mr. Patten's reforms, calling them "skillful and well-justified."

But British officials later indicated that they were worried by Zhu's hard-line comments, which they said followed a highly personal attack on Patten by Beijing over talks he had held two weeks earlier with a senior Taiwanese official.

Speaking to the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, Zhu hinted that Britain's trade ties with China could suffer if London continued to back plans to hold elections for district and municipal boards in Hong Kong two years before the hand-over and to broaden the democratic basis for elections to the territory's Legislative Council (parliament).

Asked whether Britain-China trade ties and the future of Hong Kong were linked, Zhu said: "Let's wait and see."

The nub of China's complaint is that by trying to boost democracy in the colony before the hand-over to China, Britain is in breach of the 1984 joint declaration negotiated by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Zhu said the declaration called for convergence between Hong Kong's political system and the Basic Law that will serve as the territory's constitution after 1997. Under the 1984 accord between Britain and China, Hong Kong is supposed to remain a capitalist enclave for half a century after the hand-over. The accord, however, provides for a governor appointed by Beijing.

Patten, Mr. Major, and Mr. Hurd are under conflicting pressures in their attempts to resolve the future of Hong Kong in a way that will preserve the territory as an Asian economic dynamo and also safeguard the democratic rights of its people.

A London-based diplomat explains that Patten is being pressed by the majority of Hong Kong's 6 million people to extend democracy as much as possible ahead of China's takeover.

"But the government in Beijing sees every step toward democracy as a threat to the centralist institutions of the Chinese state," the diplomat says. "The waters have been muddied by leaders of Hong Kong's business community who say they are not keen on democratic reforms." Earlier this month a joint statement by Hong Kong businessmen said the Patten reforms threatened the 1984 agreement and could jeopardize a smooth hand-over to China in 1997.

A Chinese diplomatic source says Beijing views the reforms with dismay. The source says Patten has accepted that only 20 of the Legislative Council's 60 members would be chosen by direct election in 1995, but added that he is proposing a series of voting-law reforms that Beijing regards as repugnant. The source referred to a plan to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 which, he says, contravenes the 1984 accords.

After four months as governor, Patten is indicating privately that he is exasperated by China's negotiating methods.

When Patten went to Beijing three weeks ago to explain his constitutional proposals, Premier Li Peng refused to see him. Less senior officials told him Britain should think again.

China was angered by a meeting Patten held Nov. 3 with Xu Shengfa, a senior official of Taiwan's ruling Nationalist party. An editorial in People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, said the governor had "openly offered flattery and favors" to Mr. Xu, and called the meeting "a challenge to Chinese sovereignty".

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