The most critical phase in this territory's delicate transition to Chinese rule is to begin today with the publication of an extensive political review by the British colonial administration. The review is expected to spark one of the most intense public debates in Hong Kong's history. At issue is the degree of democracy the territory will enjoy once it becomes a special administrative region of China in 10 years' time.
The green paper on political reform, as the document is known, will contain a list of future political options. It will give Hong Kong's residents their last substantial opportunity to advance their views on how they want to be governed after 1997, when British colonial leases expire.
After assessing public opinion over a period of several months, the British government is to issue a white paper outlining the political system that it will leave behind when it departs. Analysts view the coming period as Britain's last chance to demonstrate its commitment to representative government and reverse a loss of public confidence in recent months.
The Sino-British agreement, signed in 1984, guarantees Hong Kong 50 years of political and economic autonomy after 1997. Among other things, it provides for an elected legislature and a chief executive who is answerable to it.
At Peking's insistence, the pact is deliberately vague as to how Hong Kong will be governed. China has become steadily more blunt in opposing significant political reform, in particular the use of direct balloting to fill legislative seats now occupied by administrative appointees.
Britain's response has been to accommodate China's concerns. It has acknowledged that whatever reforms it initiates before 1997 must conform to a Basic Law, a mini-constitution that Peking is drafting for Hong Kong. Many residents have come to see this policy as an abdication of Britain's political responsibilities.
Chief among the issues to be addressed in the forthcoming political review will be the future composition of the lawmaking Legislative Council. In the first colonywide elections in Hong Kong's history, the administration opened a minority of seats in the 56-member chamber to indirect elections two years ago.
Those polls were intended as a first step toward direct balloting in council elections scheduled for 1988. Since then, however, the issue has deeply divided the territory, with many business and professional leaders supporting Peking in opposing moves toward democratization.
Deng Xiaoping, China's senior leader, told a visiting delegation from the territory last month that ``it won't suit Hong Kong to copy Western political practices.''
For many, Mr. Deng's remarks ended the possibility of meaningful political debate over Hong Kong's political future. But he won immediate support from a number of Legislative Council members, notably from political appointees.
Nonetheless, a wide variety of political, social, religious, and labor groups intend to campaign in favor of direct elections. Even if it applies to only a portion of the legislature, they assert, a provision for direct balloting will give the future administration enough of a mandate to prevent post-1997 intervention by Peking.