Bringing democracy to Hong Kong. Will autonomy hold Peking at bay or destabilize the prosperous economy?

Britain's paternalist rule of Hong Kong, combined with conservatism among the colony's Chinese elite, have helped muffle a debate on bringing democracy to the territory.

The heart of the issue is how much and how fast democracy should be introduced before the British lease on most of Hong Kong ends in 13 years.

Those who want representative government, especially direct elections to key councils, say that a relatively autonomous, self-governing Hong Kong is the best insulation against interference from Peking when China takes over in 1997. Others think that moving too fast could undermine Hong Kong's stability.

''I have faith absolutely in the ability of the people of Hong Kong (to govern themselves),'' says Selina Chow, an appointed member of the Legislative Council and prominent business leader in the territory.

But, she says, ''We would not be fair to the Hong Kong people to demand too much of them too quickly. There needs to be an ongoing process of education, of preparing citizens. . . .''

''The danger of having direct elections in Hong Kong at this stage is not having the right structure. For one thing, there are no political parties,'' she says.

Mrs. Chow also points to the political sensitivity of Hong Kong's businessmen , industrialists, and professionals, all of whom are key people in making the territory a viable community. Most of this minority - a few hundred thousand out of Hong Kong's 5.5 million people - are able to pull up stakes and emigrate. It is important, Chow says, that they not lose faith that the steps taken in the political development of Hong Kong will preserve the stability which has made possible the territory's survival and prosperity so far.

Hong Kong's business community tends to favor the go-slow approach, as outlined in the Hong Kong government's Green Paper. The document specifies proposals for a gradual shift to a more representative system. A final white paper on the subject is scheduled to be published at year's end.

Defenders of the go-slow approach say that Hong Kong has had almost no experience with democracy and that a sudden shift to direct elections and adversary politics would undermine its stability. They also warn that ''big brother'' China to the north would not tolerate too much democracy.

Those who seek a fast shift to democracy here point to a younger generation of better-educated citizens, some of whom want more say in public affairs. This generation is no longer content, they say, with the laissez-faire government that provided the law and order so welcome by older citizens who fled the mainland during the 1940s and 1950s.

The timing of the government reforms proposed in the Green Paper is linked to China's timetable. Early next year, Peking plans to begin drafting Hong Kong's Basic Law, which will determine the territory's administrative structure as a special ''autonomous region'' under Chinese sovereignty.

Since the Basic Law will have to take into account Hong Kong's existing government system under the terms of the Sino-British agreement still being negotiated, many observers here say that the sooner a more representative government is established the better.

''I think we should support direct elections as soon as possible,'' Alison Lee told fellow district board members at a recent meeting in the industrial town of Kwun Tong.

''We could begin with one quarter of the council members in '85 or '88. The quality of the members would not suffer and our citizens will be greatly encouraged.''

''We also need to educate our people about democracy, perhaps adding this to the curriculum of our secondary schools,'' the vocational school principal said.

Later Mrs. Lee said she thought the government was trying to develop Hong Kong politically, ''but there are too many restraints.''

She explained that it is older people - who suffered in China and now have a good life in Hong Kong - who feel threatened by any political change. They are afraid that more democracy will disrupt the economy and irritate Peking, she said.

Among members of the Kwun Tong district board, Mrs. Lee's opinion of the Green Paper was in the minority. More typical was that of Lam Hang Fai, a local businessman and civic leader.

''Hong Kong is a very special place,'' Mr. Lam said. ''If everyone were very conscious of democracy, perhaps Hong Kong would not be so successful. India is very democratic, but they have many problems.''

After the meeting, Mr. Lam commented that democracy is not very deeply rooted in Hong Kong and that it would not be wise to promote direct elections too soon. Echoing a widely held opinion, he said that if direct elections were held, special interest groups would take advantage of the situation to promote their own interests and disregard those of the public.

Mr. Lam would not identify what special interest groups he had in mind. Western diplomats, however, say there is an extensive network of Taiwan independence groups operating in Hong Kong which would like to disrupt the transition from British to Chinese rule. Others have expressed concern that some groups would make unreasonable demands for welfare and other social services which would destablize Hong Kong's already deficit-ridden government.

Under the government's plan, it would continue to rule by the venerable system of consultation and consensus through two key organs, the Executive Council and the Legislative Council. In the next four years, though, the number of appointed members to these councils would be reduced and replaced with elected members.

The elected members of the Legislative Council would be chosen either by an electoral college consisting of members of lower-ranking councils or by ''functional constituencies'' consisting of businesses, trade unions, and professional organizations. The elected members of the smaller and more powerful Executive Council would be chosen by the Legislative Council.

There would be no direct elections during the first phase of reform, though that possibility could be raised during public review of the next phase in 1989. Under the terms of the Green Paper, the governor of Hong Kong would continue to be appointed by London until 1997.

The debate over what kind of government Britain should leave behind in Hong Kong has brought little open criticism of the British.

Until the last few years, the colonial overseers of Asia's financial center had done little to promote popular political participation. They have preferred to rule in consultation with councils whose members consist of government officials and ''unofficials'' appointed by the governor from among the local citizenry. These unofficials have been almost entirely prominent businesspeople and established professionals.

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