IN an effort to shore up the credibility of British rule over Hong Kong, Prime Minister John Major plans to indicate to China that Britain will resist China's bid to deepen its influence over the territory. Mr. Major intends to suggest in a letter to Premier Li Peng that, without China's support, Britain could consider shelving a plan to build a massive airport and port complex in Hong Kong, a Hong Kong official says.
Ironically, the letter would passively confirm China's veto power over major decisions in Hong Kong. But it would show China that it cannot expect formal hands-on influence until it assumes sovereignty over the territory in 1997. The letter is expected to be presented by Robin McLaren, Britain's new ambassador to China.
The airport controversy tests China's pledge to allow the territory a high degree of autonomy after 1997, say diplomats and Hong Kong lawmakers.
For months China has withheld its support for the $12.9-billion airport complex, saying the project would drain Hong Kong's cash reserves. China's support is necessary to attract vital private funding for the plan.
Beijing is demanding a formal say in the construction of the airport and in other major decisions in Hong Kong. It also seeks guarantees that Britain will set aside at least half of the territory's $9 billion reserves for use by the post-1997 government. British officials have resisted China's demands in four sets of negotiations, all of which ended in a deadlock. They have also made public assurances that Britain will not grant China veto power over major decisions.
The inability of Britain to proceed with the project has further eroded the confidence of Hong Kong residents, who are emigrating at a rate of more than 1,000 each week, according to diplomats and local legislators.
Hong Kong unveiled the airport plan four months after the June 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing in a bid to buoy public attitudes toward the future of the territory.
Britain sees its low public esteem sag further no matter how it handles the controversy, diplomats say. Its lame-duck government in Hong Kong will appear especially ineffective if it resists China, but later suspends a project that British officials have said is a crucial underpinning to further economic growth.
At the same time, Britain will lose face if it is seen as making concessions in order to secure China's backing for the airport plan, the diplomats say.
"The Brits are in a no-win situation," a Western diplomat says. They "have gone out on a limb in promoting the airport and now they must decide either to take a leap or make concessions to get a helping hand from Beijing," the diplomat says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Both countries could adopt a face-saving solution in which Britain agrees to consultations with Beijing on major decisions as long as such talks are neither publicized nor formally enshrined, diplomats and lawmakers say. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd has already said that Britain will consider China's views on matters that will be of concern to Hong Kong after Britain yields sovereignty over the territory.
"What we don't want to see is China's veto power established as part of the constitutional process in Hong Kong, as part of day-to-day written procedure," says James McGregor, a Hong Kong legislator.
For years, China has controlled some factors essential to social and economic stability in Hong Kong and so enjoyed a degree of veto power over major decisions say the lawmakers and diplomats. For instance, Hong Kong depends on the mainland to provide 70 percent of its water supply and to hold back hundreds of thousands of potential immigrants.