Chinese, British hold talks over the future of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is such a tiny speck on the world map - merely a dot off the vast coast of mainland China - that it's hard to imagine why it should be the focus of so much attention by Britain and China. Recently the two countries have been holding important talks about the future of Hong Kong.

Right now the British flag, the Union Jack, flutters over this busy, crowded, and very prosperous island. It is, in fact, one of the very few chunks remaining from the once mighty British Empire.

But the British are living on borrowed time. They are preparing for the year 1997, when they will have to give up control of Hong Kong and let the government of mainland China take over.

Even though Britain has run Hong Kong as its own colony for 140 years through a governor who lives on the island, the Chinese claim the island and the nearby land really belong to them.

The current Communist Chinese government has its capital in Peking. It argues that the various 19th-century treaties giving Britain control are unfair because it feels they were forced on China at a time when China, which was not then communist, was weak and Britain was strong. Britain argues that these treaties made with the Manchu Dynasty, which controlled China at the time, are part of international law and must be respected.

The year 1997 is especially significant because that was the year fixed in one of those 19th-century treaties for Britain to leave what is known as the New Territories.

The New Territories were added to Hong Kong, but are so much bigger than the island. The New Territories comprises the Kowloon Peninsula and the Outlying Territories. The Kowloon section and Hong Kong island together make up the city we know today as Hong Kong.

Without the New Territories, Hong Kong wouldn't make too much sense. The New Territories are very important to Hong Kong because most people who work in Hong Kong live there. It is also the gateway between Hong Kong and mainland China, so that a tremendous amount of trade between China and the outside world passes this way. It's not surprising therefore that Britain and China have shown so much interest in Hong Kong.

Britain and China have been holding a number of important meetings lately about the future of Hong Kong. Much of the time is taken up with discussing that New Territories treaty written in 1898. This particular treaty gave Britain permission to run, or look after, and build upon the chunk of land adjoining the mainland that was known as the New Territories. But an important condition was tagged on to that deal. That condition was that it should be on a lease arrangement. A lease meant that after a certain time - in this case 99 years - the New Territories had to be handed back to its rightful owner, namely China.

The question, then, is why there is such a fuss right now. After all, the date that ends British rule over the New Territories doesn't come up for another 14 years.

One explanation is that nobody knows how Hong Kong might change when the Chinese take it back. The Chinese want to know what sort of place it will be before that lease runs out in 1997.

All this uncertainty is the reason the Chinese and the British have been holding talks to straighten out the future.

The Chinese and the British have not yet cleared up the problem. At the same time, the Chinese give the impression they don't want to make big changes. It seems as if Hong Kong would enjoy a different status from the other provinces of China when the time comes for Hong Kong to be absorbed back into China. One of China's leaders has said that China wouldn't send officials over when the time came for the British to leave the island. People who lived on the island could still run the place, but the laws of the island would have to be in line with those in China.

People who know Hong Kong well believe the Chinese don't want to make too many drastic changes because they want things to stay stable in Hong Kong. After all, China earns millions of dollars from its trade through the port of Hong Kong.

Whatever happens, though, two things appear certain:

First, the British flag and the British governor would have to go after 1997 when the lease runs out. Nobody expects Britain to stay in Hong Kong after that date.

Second, and this is the most important point, the Chinese want to see that their sovereignty is respected.

In the case of Hong Kong, it means that the Chinese think without a shade of doubt that Hong Kong really belongs to them and that nobody else has claim to it , even though Britain is running it for the moment.

One of the reasons that Britain and China have not agreed in recent talks about the future of Hong Kong is that Britain talks about its rights and responsibilities in Hong Kong under existing treaties. China doesn't believe Britain has such rights and responsibilities because China has sovereign claim to the place.

The big question now is how China will exercise sovereignty when it eventually takes over.

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