A Thin Lifeline to Hong Kong

WITH the dreadful images of Tiananmen Square still so fresh in memory, it's distressing that many Britons appear willing to abandon the people of Hong Kong to whatever fate awaits them after China regains control of the colony in 1997. To her credit, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wants to throw a lifeline to at least a small number of Hong Kong's citizens, by granting them the right to emigrate to Britain. She is opposed by many of her compatriots, however, including a sizable block of Tory backbenchers in Parliament. Mrs. Thatcher proposes granting British passports to 50,000 Hong Kong citizens and their families - about 225,000 people altogether. The selection criteria haven't been worked out, yet, but presumably the family heads would be the cream of Hong Kong's business, professional, and civil-service crop.

The prime minister is motivated only in part by compassion. She believes that many of the passport holders - secure in the knowledge that they can decamp should Beijing get repressive - would actually stay to keep Hong Kong running. Without that reassurance, Thatcher worries, Hong Kong's best and brightest will keep boarding planes for Canada and Australia.

The prime minister also recognizes that the Hong Kong immigrants would bring the intelligence, education, experience, and entrepreneurial energy that have made them successful, and would add impetus to Britain's economic resurgence.

Thatcher's plan has an elitist air: A few Britons think that, after 150 years of imperial rule, London should grant sanctuary to any of Hong Kong's 3.3 million eligible citizens who don't care to live under Chinese control. But it's better than nothing, which is about what opponents would give Hong Kong's nervous people.

Most of the critics ostensibly base their opposition on factors like housing and jobs, but it's hard to escape the impression that race is the underlying concern. (Indeed, some cruder chauvinists don't bother to conceal their distaste for the influx of nonwhites into Britain since World War II.) To the extent that resistance to Thatcher's proposal is based on economic considerations, it's shortsighted; and to the extent it's based on race, it's ugly.

Nonetheless, there appears to be a strong possibility that Thatcher will be rebuffed in the House of Commons this spring.

Britain has a moral obligation to its longtime colony to ensure that the Basic Law governing the exercise of Chinese control after 1997 (the final version of which is scheduled for completion by March) codifies earlier understandings about Hong Kong's political and economic rights, and also to do all within its power to get democratic institutions firmly grounded before the transfer. Mrs. Thatcher's immigration proposal, in addition to being humane, can assist in protecting Hong Kong's future.

Great Britain should exit Hong Kong with dignity and decency, not slink out without a backward glance.

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