Even Chinese Who Liked British Rule Are Irked Over Hong Kong

Britain's stand on colony is seen as an affront to China's pride

XU XIXIAN has only good things to say about the British.

A youth when Britain ruled this port on the Shandong peninsula, Mr. Xu recalls with some nostalgia the years living in a small house behind the British school where his father was gardener.

The surrounding area was poor, but residents in the 465-square-mile British concession paid and treated Chinese well, says the elderly man. He can still point out who lived where as he strolls through the former foreign enclave.

Reginald Johnston, the former tutor to the boy-emperor Puyi and Britain's last administrator before Weihai returned to Chinese control in 1930, was respectfully called Lord Zhuang.

"He was all right," says Xu, who later became a police constable in Hong Kong for 10 years before returning to China in 1959. "When the British ruled Weihai, they ruled in a civilized way. They were different than the Japanese. They never suppressed us."

But mention Peng Dingkan, known in the West as Chris Patten, and Xu seethes. Mr. Patten, Britain's governor of Hong Kong, is embroiled in a confrontation with China over the colony's return in 1997.

"We Chinese will not allow Chris Patten to act against the Sino-British joint declaration. I, as an old man, will not allow Chris Patten to do this," he says vehemently, referring to the agreement covering Hong Kong's turnover. "The British government is different now. Times have changed."

As Britain and China face off over the future of Hong Kong, Chinese who may feel a sentimental tug over Britain's past get livid over what they see as a national affront today.

Beijing has raged since Patten, former leader of Britain's Conservative Party and a confidant of Prime Minister John Major, announced his political reforms plan last October.

On Tuesday, the two sides made a breakthrough by agreeing to resume talks that broke off last year, triggering a Beijing propaganda assault aimed at stirring Chinese nationalism on the mainland and fear in Hong Kong. China targeted Patten for pushing changes, which although modest in scope, stirred anxiety that political reform in Hong Kong would spread inland.

The talks, scheduled to begin April 22, come amid reports of a split within the Chinese leadership and opposition to Beijing's strategy from fast-growing southern provinces whose fortunes are tied to Hong Kong. The revived talks grew out of Beijing's realization that its vehemence was "undermining the economic future of Hong Kong," says a Western diplomat.

Last month China's nominal parliament, the National People's Congress, authorized a committee to prepare for return of the colony. In Hong Kong, that prompted new worries about a parallel shadow government or worse, an early Chinese takeover of the colony.

For its part, Britain acceded to a Chinese demand that its Beijing ambassador, not Patten, lead its negotiating team, although Hong Kong's legislature will have a vote on any deal, Western diplomats say.

"We had to give Britain a way to save face," says a senior Chinese journalist who has ties to senior leaders and is well-informed on Communist Party matters.

Although no one can predict the outcome of the tough talks ahead, the episode highlights an undercurrent of nationalism resurfacing in China as the pariah state of 1989 emerges as a growing economic and military power.

In their standoff with Britain, Beijing's Communists have deftly appealed to Chinese nationalism and longstanding suspicion of foreigners in an effort to stem eroding control at home, political analysts say.

Even many activists who paid dearly for defying communism in the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 insist Hong Kong is an issue, not of democracy, but of Chinese pride.

"Chris Patten is overreacting," says a young businessman who lives near Weihei and was imprisoned after the Army suppression of democracy demonstrators. "It's true that we can only have political change in China with pressure from the United States and Britain and from people like Chris Patten. But if the pressure is too much and the masses are angry about outside interference, then they won't get anywhere."

In Weihai, the anti-British bluster of today contrasts sharply with nostalgia for yesterday. This small port became part of the British empire in 1898 when the dying Qing Dynasty gave leases for two pieces of land. The other, governing Hong Kong, runs out in 1997, setting the stage for China's takeover of the colony.

Weihai, though, broke out of the British orbit after only three decades of fairly benevolent English rule. Johnston, the onetime imperial tutor, allowed dynastic social traditions and village hierarchy in what was then called Weihaiwei to continue without interference.

Those memories have given Weihai residents almost a proprietary view of its former rulers. "Weihai people like to claim a closeness to the British," sniffed an official from nearby Yantai.

Since Britain agreed in 1984 to return Hong Kong to mainland control, Weihai has been buffeted by negative comparisons between its 1930 return to China and Hong Kong's possible future. Suggestions that the port went downhill after the British pulled out may be one reason behind an aggressive urban-planning and improvement campaign by city leaders in Weihai.

But Xu, the onetime police constable, insists that Hong Kong won't be a replay of Weihai. "Our people are different than in the past. We are no longer insulted by the world," he says. "Western countries can no longer bully China."

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