Visit fails to ease Hong Kong concerns about its future

A top Chinese official ended a two-week visit to Hong Kong Sunday, failing to diminish mounting concern here over the colony's future under China. Ji Pengfei, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office here, was the most senior mainland representative to visit Hong Kong since the communist take-over in 1949. He holds the rank of vice-premier in the Chinese government.

His tour of the territory followed repeated warn-ings by Chinese officials -- including himself -- that Hong Kong's preparations for an autonomous administration under a Chinese flag are not to Peking's liking.

The comments have shaken the colony's fragile confidence in its future, and Mr. Ji clearly intended to repair some of the damage. But the most optimistic assessment of his visit is only that it has not worsened the anxiety being felt here.

Ji's unusually long stay also seemed to be partly a display of China's willingness to learn more about Hong Kong. It included visits to a power station, new harbor facilities, and an arts center.

It had been widely hoped, though less widely expected, that Ji also would signal China's acceptance of recent steps Hong Kong has taken toward an elected government. Under an agreement Britain and China reached last year, the territory is to administer itself for 50 years after 1997, when Britain's colonial leases expire.

But Ji did not visit the Legislative Council, the focus of the territory's recent political reforms. Recent elections to the council provoked China's sharpest criticisms to date.

The decision to avoid this issue is viewed here as his most serious lapse -- and has apparently limited the impact of his other gestures of goodwill.

On his departure, Ji said that China has ``no concrete design, blueprint, nor any fixed preconception'' of how the territory is to be governed after Britain's departure. And he indicated for the first time that local courts may be given the authority to interpret a constitution for Hong Kong that is to be written in Peking.

These were received here as his most encouraging statements. But he also warned that ``we must not simply copy from abroad'' in structuring Hong Kong's political framework.

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