Britain and China have initialed a draft agreement on the future of Hong Kong , under which sovereignty over that dynamic territory will be restored to China in 1997. The agreement, which must still be ratified by the British Parliament and by China's legislature, is an impressive document. But the agreement leaves unresolved several crucial questions about the future governance of Hong Kong. As a result, although the prevailing reaction in Hong Kong is likely to be substantial relief, that emotion will still be tinged with a lingering uncertainty.
Particularly encouraging is the degree to which Chinese negotiators were willing to specify a detailed set of policies regarding the future of Hong Kong. The document provides that Britain will remain solely responsible for the administration of Hong Kong until 1997. It contains relatively specific guarantees that Hong Kong's present judicial, administrative, financial, economic, educational, and social systems will be preserved for 50 years after China's resumption of sovereignty. It lists a full roster of human and civil rights and freedoms which China vows to protect. And it also sets out the mechanisms by which Hong Kong can continue to be a viable international financial center, trading partner, and free port after its reversion to China.
Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the agreement that will reasonably arouse concern in Hong Kong. Hong Kong's autonomy critically depends on its ability to develop effective institutions of self-government. But the agreement says very little about the political process envisioned for the territory after 1997. It promises an elected legislature, but neither gives details about the electoral system nor guarantees that the elections will be competitive. It provides that the chief executive will be appointed by Peking after ''elections'' or ''consultations held locally,'' but it offers no particulars. It specifies that the executive authorities will be ''accountable to the legislature,'' but gives no clearer picture of the balance between executive and legislative power.
The agreement does not even mention the present Hong Kong government's Green Paper on creating self-government between now and 1997 - a plan that envisions a system of indirect elections, and a relatively powerful chief executive. Instead , the structure of the regional government that will rule Hong Kong after reversion to China will be described in a ''Basic Law'' that Peking will enact sometime between now and 1997.
The agreement also provides for a number of loopholes through which a future government in Peking might be able legally to interfere in Hong Kong's internal affairs if it so chose.
Thus much rests on the content of this ''mini-constitution,'' and the process by which it will be drawn up. Peking has pledged to Britain that the Basic Law will embody all the guarantees and provisions of the joint agreement, and it has promised informally that the people of Hong Kong will be consulted during the drafting process. But the Basic Law will be unveiled well after the Sino-British agreement is concluded, and there is no provision for either London or Hong Kong to approve its contents. Nor is there yet any indication as to how, or by whom, the Basic Law can be amended after 1997.
It is quite possible, therefore, that the Basic Law will contain strict limits on representative government in Hong Kong. And the power to set those limits appears to belong to Peking alone.
Over the long term, what is troubling about the joint agreement is its provision that China's treatment of Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years , until the year 2047. What happens then is unclear, but it is implied that China will then feel free to undertake a major reordering of life in Hong Kong. Also, the joint agreement does not guarantee that the determination of Hong Kong's future at that point will require Hong Kong's consent. Thus the document does not represent a permanent arrangement for Hong Kong, but is merely a ''second lease,'' with a term half as long as the first.
What are the present options for Hong Kong? The British government has put the choice in the starkest terms. Hong Kong cannot expect the agreement to be renegotiated. If Hong Kong does not accept it in toto, therefore, it must be willing to face its future solely on Peking's terms.
Given these circumstances, and given the many virtues of the joint agreement, it is not surprising that the early reaction in Hong Kong is to accept it. But some uncertainty will remain until the people of Hong Kong see the text of the Basic Law - and then learn the way in which the government in Peking will choose to put it in effect.