THE shake-up in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative cabinet has raised hopes of a new British approach to Hong Kong, the orphan-like British colony that is due to be cut loose from Britain and placed under Chinese communist rule in 1997. Sir Geoffrey Howe, the former Foreign Secretary who has run out of credibility with Hong Kong's people, has been succeeded by John Major, former chief secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
But the hopes for a drastic shift are likely to be dashed. Personnel may change but Mrs. Thatcher's policy towards Hong Kong will probably not. That policy is to escape from Hong Kong with as much dignity as possible but with as little responsibility as possible for its nearly six million people. As recent events in mainland China have made the fate of those people ever more precarious when they come under communist rule, the honor with which Britain will be able to depart has become ever more questionable.
Hong Kong's predominantly Chinese population, many of whom are already refugees from communism, have been clinging to a variety of hopes.
One is that a defiant Britain, alarmed by the latest repression in Beijing, would go back and negotiate a better deal for Hong Kong with China. That is improbable. Britain does not seem to have the moxie for that; Deng Xiaoping would throw such a negotiating mission out of his door.
Another hope is that the 1997 agreement for the return of Hong Kong to China would somehow fade away and that the status quo - light-reined British rule of a vigorously-capitalistic society - would continue. Another daydream; China would not tolerate such a loss of face and the British have neither the resolve nor the military resources to defend Hong Kong.
Yet another hope, not entirely dead, is that Britain would provide sanctuary for several million Hong Kong Chinese if Beijing's rule is, indeed, repressive and they have to flee. About 65 percent of Hong Kong's people were actually born in the colony and thus carry passports naming them ``British Dependent Territory Citizens.'' However these are merely travel documents and by no means translate into British citizenship. Britain is not going to make all these people full British citizens, with the right to settle in the United Kingdom. Nor, so far, has Britain agreed to the ``right of abode'' these Hong Kong citizens are asking for - the right to escape to Britain if the communists get too tough in Hong Kong after 1997. The Thatcher government, facing increasing unpopularity at home, is simply unwilling to assume the political burden of letting several million hard-working and ambitious Chinese into Britain.
And so Hong Kong's Chinese are facing a familiar prospect - survival by means of their own resources, industry, opportunism.
There have been some fanciful solutions proposed. One Hong Kong politician suggests moving the territory to Australia - leasing an area about the size of Hong Kong near Darwin and transplanting everyone who wants to go. Somebody else suggested a site in a remote part of Scotland, or even the Falklands. To the Australians, the Scots, and the Falkland Islanders, these must have come - to say the least - as intriguing suggestions. Also improbable.
A few eternal optimists suggest that by the time 1997 rolls around, Deng Xiaoping will be gone and there will be a more benign regime in Beijing. It is also possible that there will be uncertainty and instability in the Chinese capital as would-be successors joust for power and control.
Cabinet shake-up in London notwithstanding, Hong Kong's salvation does not seem to lie in Britain. Probably Hong Kong should try to internationalize its problem - to get international backing for the promises Britain made about its future after communist rule, but which Beijing now may not honor and which Britain will be unable to enforce.