IT is three years hence - the year 1997. The British Union Jack, flown over Hong Kong for more than 150 years, has been hauled down. China has assumed control, and its red flag now flutters triumphantly over government buildings. Most of the British have gone. Left behind are some 6 million Hong Kong Chinese, many of whose families fled the mainland in the 1940s when the Communists took over.
In the run-up to 1997, the last British governor imposed a semblance of democracy in the shape of an elected legislature. This was something the colony had not enjoyed under a century and a half of admittedly benign colonial rule. At the time, Beijing angrily vowed to dismantle it. Now, with its proconsuls in power, it does so. There is ferment in Hong Kong, dismay abroad. Students demonstrate in the streets and are beaten back by Beijing's soldiers. Several protesting legislators are detained. A decree from Beijing silences the Hong Kong press.
Many Hong Kong Chinese clamor to escape. The wealthy, having arranged foreign passports and established sanctuaries in advance in Canada, Australia, and Caribbean nations, leave without problems. The British prime minister announces Britain will take a few additional thousands of refugees from among Hong Kong's Chinese elite. The American president, newly installed in January of 1997, deplores China's actions in Hong Kong, but is sensitive to the concerns of American business, now prospering mightily from involvement in China's own burgeoning economy.
Refugees from Hong Kong take to the boats, heading for Thailand and the Philippines, and flagging down foreign ships in the South China Sea. Confidence in Hong Kong erodes. Hong Kong's much-vaunted economy reels in shock.
This is a worst-case scenario, but a conceivable one unless Britain and China can resolve, before 1997, the crisis that has deadlocked them on Hong Kong's future.
As the men of Beijing see it, British efforts to change the status quo in Hong Kong in the last days of their rule cut across the deal Beijing made with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Mrs. Thatcher went to war to protect the British Falklands from Argentina, but to many of us she seemed craven in agreeing to surrender Hong Kong to Beijing without building in adequate protection for Hong Kong's Chinese citizens. In trying to install some elements of democracy in Hong Kong at this late stage, the present British government of Prime Minister John Major is trying to correct that monumental miscalculation as the clock ticks toward handover time.
The situation is complicated by China's worsening human rights record since Thatcher in 1984 agreed to Hong Kong's cession in 1997. Beijing's image has become badly tarnished by such events as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and various instances of oppression since.
Currently, the Chinese leadership is seeking to persuade the Clinton administration that it is making progress in the treatment of its people. Yet the Puebla Institute, a Washington human rights organization, reports that just in the past few months the Chinese authorities have arrested 14 independent Christian leaders, including three Roman Catholic bishops. The New York-based human rights organization Asia Watch published a list last month of 1,700 people imprisoned in China and Tibet for their political, religious, or ethnic views. Also published last month was the US State Department's annual human rights report, sharply critical of China's record.
Beijing is responding to the British in the worst possible way for its image. It is threatening to abolish the Hong Kong legislature and set up a new political body to govern Hong Kong in 1997. One US expert on China says: ``They're using scare tactics, claiming to be acting on principle'' but actually threatening to tighten the screws on Hong Kong when they take over. ``That will destroy confidence in Hong Kong and ruin it economically. Nobody wants that - especially not Beijing.''
The US State Department's top human rights official, Assistant Secretary John Shattuck, is in Beijing this week for talks with the Chinese leaders. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will follow soon to reinforce the Clinton administration's message that China still has much to do. Beyond the immediacy of their mission, these diplomats must get across to the Chinese the acute need to defuse the crisis with Britain over Hong Kong.