AGAINST expectations of tougher relations with China, Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten has stepped back from directly challenging Beijing over political reform.
In a closely watched speech that offered grass-roots political change and safeguards for Hong Kong's frenetic economy, the British politician unveiled a five-year blueprint for governing Hong Kong in the run-up to Chinese rule in 1997.
Although the Hong Kong stock market lept after Mr. Patten side-stepped open defiance, the governor's plan is expected to please neither Beijing nor democratic reformers in the colony.
Granting Hong Kong residents more political say is likely to irritate Beijing, which has promised to leave the colony intact for 50 years after the turnover. The plan calls for lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and switching appointed district boards and municipal councils to an elected basis.
Patten's planned changes will be on the table when he visits Beijing later this month.
In a commentary before the speech, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong China News Agency, which often acts as China's mouthpiece, said Patten lacked an understanding of Asian political culture and urged him to appoint more advisers with connections to the mainland.
"The first priority should be for China and Britain to build a harmonious, cooperative relationship," said the agency, which has opposed more involvement by Hong Kong's democratic activists.
Yet while Patten's plan gives the colony's feeble Legislative Council more teeth in scrutinizing official departments, it falls short of subjecting the entire council to direct election. Unlike the lesser political reforms, that would have required Beijing's blessing.
Patten also plans to revamp his governing Executive Council and throw out powerful pro-Beijing businessmen members. But the governor said that democratic change should proceed at its own pace within the context of the colony's mini-constitution known as Basic Law.
That will disappoint colony liberals who want more dramatic political change and a beefy representative government in place to counter China's autocrats in 1997. Currently, only one-third of the legislators are chosen by direct ballot.
"Relations are already difficult," an Asian diplomat in Beijing said about China and the Hong Kong governor. "That would have been too confrontational."
Since assuming the colony's top job in July, Patten, former head of the British Conservative Party and a confidant of Prime Minister John Major, has taken a tougher stance on China than his predecessor, Lord Wilson.
In September, Patten made a whirlwind trip to London to cement Mr. Major's support for the grass-roots political reforms and a more confrontational tack with China.
Patten also proposed dramatic increases in public spending on welfare, the environment, education, and law and order.
"Hong Kong is sometimes described as crassly materialistic and motivated solely by a search for personal gain. The truth is very different," the governor said. "Democracy is more than just a philosophical ideal. It is ... an essential element in the pursuit of economic progress."