THE British government is facing a major backbench revolt against its plans to give 150,000 to 170,000 Hong Kong citizens a ``right of abode'' in Britain before China's takeover of the colony in 1997. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Douglas Hurd, her foreign secretary, have both said that giving ``key'' Hong Kong citizens and their families the right to live in Britain is the best way of easing the concern of residents of the colony about the impact of rule from Beijing. But many Conservative parliamentary backbenchers say the idea is unacceptable, and they have threatened to oppose legislation changing the rules to let in immigrants from Hong Kong.
The opposition Labour Party also is threatening to vote against changes in the law. A combination of Tory backbench and official Labour opposition would almost certainly defeat the proposed government moves.
Leading the threatened Tory revolt is Norman Tebbit, a former party chairman. He has the support of up to 60 Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) who, at a Dec. 14 meeting of Conservative Party backbenchers, spoke out against the proposed ``open door'' policy for Hong Kong citizens occupying influential positions in the colony's administration and in professions such as the law, commerce, and medicine. But Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Hurd have made it plain that they intend to press ahead.
The population of Hong Kong is 5.7 million, of whom 3.5 million hold British (HK) passports, which expressly forbid the holders to live in Britain.
A campaign called ``Honor Hong Kong,'' mounted in Britain in recent weeks, has called for the right of abode in Britain to be extended to all 3.5 million holders of these passports. The proposal to grant residential rights to about 50,000 key Hong Kong residents and their families is the government's compromise response to the campaign's demands.
Hurd says granting the right of abode would ``anchor'' key people in the colony. They would not necessarily wish to come to Britain. Labour has denounced this approach, saying it would help only the ``wealthy and powerful'' Hong Kong middle classes.
Even the government's proposed compromise is too much for hard-line Tory parliamentarians. John Carlisle, MP for Luton, near London, said: ``My view is that we shouldn't accept any. We are under no moral obligation to accept any increased numbers. Our obligation is to the people of this country and particularly to my constituents who over the years have received many thousands of immigrants from all over the world. ... We should say, `Sorry, this particular door is not just shut - it is slammed.'''
Thatcher was placed in an acute dilemma by the threatened revolt. Residents of Hong Kong, recalling the massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square last June, fear that Chinese rule of their colony may make their lives intolerable. They want assurances that they will have the right to leave Hong Kong and live in Britain.
In the past 12 months, about 50,000 Hong Kong residents have left the colony, anticipating trouble in 1997. Most are professional people and their families. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are favored destinations.
Britain's Conservative Party is reluctant to extend the right of abode to large numbers of immigrants. In the past 20 years, rules against immigration into Britain have been tightened. They have the support of the Labour Party.
In Hong Kong, Jimmy McGregor, a leading local legislator, accuses British Tory MPs of ``racist attitudes'' and of ignoring the colony's future well-being.
``Unless sufficient numbers of middle-class Chinese with valuable jobs in Hong Kong are offered passports immediately, they will leave the colony, and confidence in Hong Kong will collapse,'' he says. All 3.5 million British citizens in Hong Kong should be given the right to live in Britain, he adds.
Thatcher's position against accepting residents from Hong Kong was made more difficult when the new home secretary, David Waddington, opposed the Hong Kong plan. Appointed last month, Mr. Waddington is in charge of immigration policy. In the past he has been in the forefront of MPs calling for tough laws to prevent a further influx of nonwhite immigrants.
Hurd has tried to counter criticism of the plan by arguing that Hong Kong constitutes a unique problem. Opposition to the ``right of abode'' plan comes on top of severe criticism of Britain's decision to repatriate Vietnamese ``economic migrants'' against their will.