Probing the Hong Kong Question. BRITAIN'S LATEST `COLONIAL' DEBATE

BRITAIN'S decision to hand back the colony of Hong Kong and its 5 million residents to China is running into trouble. And some of the most awkward questions are going to be asked by senior members of Britain's own House of Commons.

The House's Foreign Affairs Committee has decided to mount a special inquiry about Hong Kong during the next few months.

Above all, the committee members want to quiz the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, about complaints from Hong Kong regarding the ``basic law'' recently negotiated by London and Beijing. Many in Hong Kong say the law, which is to govern the territory after 1997 when the British lease expires, does not contain enough provisions for the development of democracy.

British parliamentary committees have only recently begun United States-style probing investigations of government policy. They have powers to call witnesses and will publish their findings.

Apart from issues of democratic rule, the Foreign Affairs Committee is also likely to question Foreign Secretary Howe as to why only a tiny number of Hong Kong civil servants who have been ``loyal to the Crown'' are to be granted British citizenship when British rule comes to an end. Some 500 civil servants have applied, but only eight were deemed to be qualified.

By contrast, Portugal, which is scheduled to hand over its own enclave, Macao, to China in 1999 is set to grant citizenship to 5,000 civil servants.

They will have the right to live in Portugal or, if they wish, in Britain. Portugal and Britain belong to the European Community, which grants reciprocal residential rights to citizens of member countries.

Britain and China agreed in principle in 1984 that the financially prosperous colony, a few miles from the coastal Chinese city of Guangzhou (Canton), should be handed over. Ever since, negotiators have been working on the details. So far there have been two drafts of the basic law.

The version provisionally agreed at a meeting in Guangzhou on the weekend of Jan. 14-15, will soon be considered by a standing committee of the Chinese National People's Congress (parliament) in Beijing.

In Hong Kong itself, citizens' groups are complaining that, as it stands, the draft would make it possible for China to prevent the people of Hong Kong from electing their own legislature until well into the 21st century.

During negotiations opened in 1984 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it was agreed that Hong Kong would enjoy special status after 1997 and that there would be steady progress toward democracy.

In Hong Kong, however, opposition leaders say the draft basic law would enable the authorities in Beijing to block a directly elected Hong Kong parliament at least until the year 2011 - 14 years after Britain turns over the colony.

Even then there would have to be a referendum under Beijing's auspices before that happened.

Hong Kong's history in the past century has been one of burgeoning economic growth under direct British government.

Martin Lee, a Hong Kong lawyer who is the leading voice in the debate over the colony's return to Beijing, believes China will supplant Britain with another form of direct rule, and that plans for a democratic constitution will turn out to be a sham.

Mr. Lee and his followers argue that the Beijing authorities are unlikely to allow Hong Kong to remain the dynamic capitalist enclave it is today.

Intervention by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in London is likely to embarrass Prime Minister Thatcher's government, which has carried out the negotiations with China in deep secret.

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