WHILE freedom has come to millions of Russians, Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians, as well as others in Eastern Europe, there is not much immediate hope for more than a billion Chinese who still live under communist rule.Recent refugees from the Chinese mainland tell chilling stories of arbitrary imprisonment, torture by electric shock treatment, and conditions of near starvation for political prisoners. The CBS program "Sixty Minutes" and Newsweek magazine have both recently run extensive exposes of China's brutal labor camps. To all this, Chinese officials respond that how they treat their own people is an internal matter and of no concern to the outside world. Says China's ambassador to the United States, Zhu Qizhen: "The rights of the majority of the people for living, for surviving, should not be taken by a few who instigate chaos." Ambassador Zhu is referring to, among others, the students involved in what he calls an "incident" in 1989. The incident, of course, was the uprising of students against oppressive communist ru le and the massacre of many of them in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile, if there is no immediate prospect of change in China itself, there is the sad prospect of another 6 million Chinese, presently enjoying freedom, being turned over to the regime in Beijing. These are the Chinese inhabitants of Hong Kong, a British colony perched on the rim of China, which is due to be transferred to Beijing in 1997. Many of these people are already refugees from communism. When the communists seized power in China, many anti-communists fled to Hong Kong. A combination of stable British administration and Chinese industry and commercial genius have made the rock-girt island and adjoining leased territory on the mainland a thriving city-state. But Britain has acquiesced to Chinese demands for the return of the territory, and in six years those Hong Kong Chinese who have no escape route will fall under communist rule. Last month, in Hong Kong's first direct legislative elections, the people of Hong Kong left little doubt about how they feel. They elected a slew of pro-democracy candidates, defeating all of the pro-Beijing candidates despite vigorous electioneering by Beijing. A majority of the legislative seats remain filled by the British colonial administration, but it was a dramatic signal to the Chinese government that there is no enthusiasm on the part of Hong Kong's Chinese for a communist takeover. There seems no prospect of reversing the decision to hand over Hong Kong to a regime that, apparently without shame, arrests, tortures, and shoots those of its own people who dissent. Even after the massacre in Tiananmen Square revealed the true character of the Beijing regime, the British government displayed no will for confrontation with China. But what the people of Hong Kong seem to be saying is: If we have to live under communist rule, at least before then give us as much self-government as possible. They may be grasping at a very frail straw. Says Chinese ambassador Zhu: "We're not worried about the election results in Hong Kong. We're happy for Hong Kong to have 50 years of capitalism after we take over, while we pursue communism. That's what we mean by 'one nation, two systems.' All we want is to maintain Hong Kong's financial stability, its economy, its tourist trade." Whether this happy, hands-off scenario will actually unfold seems pretty unlikely given the character of the governing regime in Beijing. In the few years before the handover takes place, Britain could display more gumption than it has to date by turning more and more control over to Hong Kong's Chinese, whatever disapproving rumbles there may be from Beijing. What we need in Hong Kong is a display of that same British mettle that was evident in the confrontation with Argentina over the Falklands, and with Saddam Hussein over Kuwait. In the long run, of course, the salvation of Hong Kong's Chinese, and the Chinese on the mainland, is the ouster of the oligarchic gerontocracy that rules in Beijing.