As Clock Ticks for Hong Kong, Britain Seeks a Graceful Exit

THIS week's visit of British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind to Beijing was supposed to be a fence-mending trip to smooth the way for Hong Kong's 1997 return to China.

Instead, the three-day trip will be overshadowed by human rights worries both in the British colony and on the mainland. The new agenda is likely to ruffle Mr. Rifkind's Chinese hosts.

As Britain's top diplomat arrives here today, a TV documentary detailing brutality and neglect in Chinese state-run orphanages is scheduled to be aired on British television. China has warned that the program could "poison the atmosphere" during Rifkind's meetings with senior Chinese leaders. This will be the first visit by a British foreign secretary in three years.

The expose comes on the heels of an extensive and damaging report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights monitor, charging that thousands of Chinese orphans have died from neglect and starvation in state-run institutions.

Rifkind is also expected to take up the touchy issue of Hong Kong's political future when he meets his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen. During a weekend stop in Hong Kong, the diplomat underscored Britain's backing for the colony's elected legislative council, which China vows to dismantle when it takes control.

Ties between Britain and China soured three years ago when British Gov. Chris Patten introduced limited political reforms establishing a fledgling democracy in the British-ruled colony.

Hong Kong residents have also been unnerved by China's recent tough line against dissent and criticism. The 14-year prison sentence given to Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent democracy advocate, worries colony democracy activists, who have been excluded from a transition team named by Beijing. China has also pledged to dilute Hong Kong's Bill of Rights.

"All in all, it will not be a breakdown or a breakthrough visit," said a senior Western diplomat yesterday.

Rifkind promises support

Throughout his trip to the colony, Rifkind stressed Britain's intention to remain involved in Hong Kong through the 1997 handover to China. Britain's "ethical and moral obligation to the people of Hong Kong" dovetails with its "continuing economic interests" in the colony, the foreign secretary told a group of business leaders. Britain's two-way trade with China totals more than $5 billion annually.

Other issues affecting Hong Kong are the completion of a long-delayed shipping container terminal, air services after 1997, visa-free travel to Britain by Hong Kong people after the turnover, citizenship rights for overseas nationals, and the right of abode in Hong Kong for longtime Indian residents and other non-Chinese ethnic minorities.

Rifkind's tour, an attempt to patch up edgy relations, will coincide with the intensifying controversy over abuse and neglect in Chinese state-run orphanages. In an attempt to refute the report, the Chinese government allowed foreign journalists yesterday to tour the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute, an orphanage where some of the worst brutality is alleged to have occurred.

During the tour, officials denied any wrongdoing. Former orphanage director Han Weicheng vehemently disavowed allegations in the Human Rights Watch report that he supported the starvation policy to reduce numbers at the orphanage, raped and beat children, relegated orphans to mental institutions for misbehavior, and embezzled foreign-donated funds.

Detailed documentaries

Similar allegations were made in a British documentary, "The Dying Rooms," which was shown in Britain last June. A sequel, "Return to the Dying Rooms," will be shown today in Britain, highlighting how China's rigid family-planning policy has led to many abandoned children.

Rifkind said he will raise the charges of brutality with China's top leaders, including President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, and Foreign Minister Qichen.

China has reacted angrily in the past when British television has aired critical programs on Chinese prison labor camps and the late Chairman Mao Zedong.

"People are concerned about the latest report, and it's likely the subject will be mentioned," Rifkind said in Hong Kong.

"We are not responsible for television programs," he continued. "I don't believe there's a material impact with regard to British and Chinese relations."

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