Hong Kong -- A 1997 deadline approaches; Treaties that trouble

Annexation or liberation? The morality of grabbing foreign territory has always depended on one's point of view.

What is surprising about Hong Kong is that an overwhelming majority of its 5. 2 million Chinese implicitly wish that the British had grabbed the whole of the colony as they originally grabbed Hong Kong Island in 1841. Uncertainty is the reason.

Hong Kong faces an uncertain future primarily because seven-eighths of its territory was not annexed. When visitors to Hong Kong land at Kai Tak Airport, for example, they are landing on territory which, by British law, reverts to China on July 1, 1997.

Britain acquired Hong Kong by a complex set of stages:

* Hong Kong Island itself was ceded in perpetuity by China to Britain under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.

* A small part of today's Kowloon, on the Chinese mainland opposite Hong Kong Island, plus Stonecutter's Island, were ceded under the Treaty of Peking in 1860 .

* The New Territories were obtained under the Convention of Peking in 1898 only on a lease of 99 years. This area includes most of modern-day Kowloon, the administrative district up to the Chinese border, and some 200 islands.

For China these nuances are unimportant since all three agreements are ''unequal treaties,'' which China rejects on principle. In practice, however, it tolerates the situation.

The clearest official Chinese Communist statement on Hong Kong remains that made by then Chinese UN Ambassador Huang Hua, now foreign minister, to the UN Special Committee on Colonization in 1972.''Hong Kong and Macau (Macao) are part of Chinese territory occupied by the British and Portuguese authorities. The settlement of the question . . . is entirely within China's sovereign right.'' The statement went on to make it clear that self-determination for this ''Chinese territory'' was not in the cards.

Until now, China has avoided saying anything officially about when a settlement would be appropriate. But the lease imposes a time limit.

British law and authority over 350 of Hong Kong's 400 square miles end at midnight on June 30, 1997. With less than 15 years to go, just as Hong Kong cannot continue to exist if the lease is honored, so, too, it cannot continue to function economically or politically if the uncertainty is not resolved.

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