HONG Kong's voters have given liberals a landslide victory over candidates backed by Communist China in the first direct legislative elections in the 150-year history of the British colony.Liberals, represented by the main pro-democracy party, United Democrats of Hong Kong, and allied groups, took 16 of the 18 Legislative Council seats in Sunday's elections. But the defeat of all pro-Beijing candidates is likely to galvanize China's opposition to calls for a broadening of direct elections in Hong Kong, which reverts to Chinese rule in 1997. Moreover, the lower-than-expected turnout of 39 percent of Hong Kong's 1.9 million registered voters could hamper efforts by Britain to renegotiate the number of directly elected seats with China. The showing represented only a fifth of Hong Kong's 3.8 million eligible voters, half of whom registered. China's chief representative in Hong Kong called the turnout "too low." Zhou Nan, director of the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency, said it indicated Hong Kong citizens want a slower "step-by-step" pace of democratization. On the eve of the elections, Beijing denounced any attempts before 1997 to alter the composition of the Legislative Council as set down in the Basic Law, China's mini-constitution for Hong Kong. China's officials in Hong Kong have worked vigorously to promote candidates sympathetic to Beijing's hard-line leadership. As early as last November, China indicated its desire to influence the elections by publicly backing the territory's first conservative business party, the Liberal Democratic Federation (LDF). Beijing's political activism is in line with a new Communist Party directive ordering Chinese officials here to groom "patriotic" candidates for the Legislative Council and other district boards, say Hong Kong sources with links to pro-China groups. The directive also calls for the active, secret recruitment of Communist Party members in the territory. Party members must conceal their status and links with party branches operating in the territory, say the sources, who are familiar with party recruiting methods. In Sunday's elections, China helped turn out thousands of workers to campaign for its candidates by mobilizing pro-Beijing establishments like the 176,000-strong Federation of Trade Unions. But the lobbying failed to move Hong Kong's predominantly ethnic Chinese voters, many of whom are refugees from China and have a visceral dread of communism. "The Chinese government must be very disappointed [in the election setback]," says Leung Kwan-kwok, a social scientist at Hong Kong's City Polytechnic. "They might feel that the democratic spirit in Hong Kong is quite strong, especially after June 4," Mr. Leung said, referring to the crackdown on China's spring 1989 democracy movement. By enhancing the legitimacy of some of Hong Kong's most outspoken critics of Beijing - including Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, both branded as "subversives" by the Chinese government - the election outcome is likely to complicate China's 1997 takeover, commentators say. "The victory of liberals will certainly make things harder for them [China's leaders] over time," says Ian Scott, a political scientist at the University of Hong Kong. He said the liberal momentum could well continue into the 1995 elections, and eventually "turn into a real pro-democracy movement." Pro-democracy legislators, however, will probably be limited to playing the role of an opposition party under Hong Kong's current parliamentary system. The 60-seat Legislative Council remains dominated by 21 members indirectly elected by more conservative functional groups, such as bankers and engineers, and another 21 members appointed by the colony's British governor. Under the blueprint set down in the Basic Law, the composition of the parliament will change in the 1995 poll to 20 directly elected seats, 30 functional seats, and 10 others indirectly selected.