Britain yields to China on Hong Kong elections

Britain has bowed to pressure from China and agreed to postpone direct elections in Hong Kong until 1991 - six years before the colony is due to come under Peking's control. The decision, announced in Hong Kong in an official White Paper yesterday, has drawn cries of ``betrayal'' from groups in the territory who have been demanding elections to the Legislative Assembly this year, and from British members of Parliament who fear that after 1997 Hong Kong will be subject to authoritarian rule from Peking.

The island of Hong Kong and its associated territories on the Chinese mainland have been ruled by Britain since 1898. It is run by a British-appointed governor, who in turn appoints members to an Executive Council and a Legislative Council (the rough equivalents of a cabinet and a parliament).

Britain decided four years ago to hand Hong Kong over to the Chinese when its lease on the territory expires in nine years. Under the Peking-London agreement, direct elections were to be introduced in stages, starting this year.

Martin Lee, a Hong Kong lawyer, who has been leading a campaign to ensure that the 1984 agreement would be kept, greeted the White Paper with charges that the people of the colony had been betrayed. Mr. Lee claimed that Britain had reneged on direct elections now because it was more interested in good relations with China after 1997 than in the welfare of the people of Hong Kong.

In the White Paper, Britain says the arrangements for direct elections have been changed because ``opinions in the colony are divided'' on the timing of constitutional changes. Instead, there will be direct elections for 10 seats in the 56-member Legislative Council in three years.

But Lee and his supporters said the changed arrangements were ``an example of Britain breaking its promises and failing to stand up to Peking.'' A key phrase in the White Paper says that ``the maintenance of stability requires evolutionary rather than revolutionary advance.''

Foreign Office officials in London claimed Wednesday that Britain had in no sense betrayed Hong Kong, but acknowledged that China had strongly opposed early direct elections. China has argued all along that it would be wrong to hold elections until it publishes the ``Basic Law'' or constitution under which Hong Kong will be governed after 1997. The Basic Law is not to be published until 1990 at the earliest.

Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, has strongly defended the revised arrangements, arguing that they are ``practical'' and ``in line with earlier undertakings.'' But the pro-democracy group in Hong Kong says that opinion polls in the colony indicate that more than 50 percent of Hong Kong citizens want democracy now. Britain contests the polls' findings.

Under the 1984 agreement, China has given Hong Kong the status of a ``special administrative region'' for 50 years after 1997. But for this arrangement to make sense, Hong Kong critics of Britain are saying, there must be a democratic system in place at the time of the Chinese takeover.

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