Calculating that Hong Kong will lose interest in democracy if its prosperity is threatened, China has launched a risky offensive against political reform in the British colony.
Lu Ping, the Beijing spokesman who led a verbal broadside against the proposed electoral changes of Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten, visits the United States this week to boost confidence in the colony's transition to Chinese rule in 1997.
Yet that confidence is now at stake in the row that broke out between China's ruling Communists and Britain when Mr. Patten unveiled the reforms and traveled to Beijing last month.
Beijing denounced Patten's political proposals and airport financing plan with some of the toughest rhetoric used since it blamed Hong Kong for helping the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
Those proposals, calling for raising the number of directly elected seats in the 60-member legislature from 20 to 39 in a 1995 election, changing Hong Kong's constituency system, and increasing welfare spending, were aimed at meeting local demand for democracy without antagonizing Beijing.
Instead, the proposals have triggered an outburst by China which is as enraged over Patten's free-wheeling political style.
"After years of domination and humiliation [by Britain], Beijing sees this as the final insult," an Asian diplomat says in Beijing.
In the last week, Mr. Lu, who heads the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, has taken the lead in a criticism barrage, predicting that the colony is headed for "chaos" and "disaster" under the Patten formula.
At the last minute, China called off a seminar on Hong Kong's transition to Chinese sovereignty and has raised the possibility of canceling a visit this month by Chinese Vice Premier Zhu Rongji to Britain.
Lu has published transcripts of confidential exchanges on the 1995 election, claiming that Britain made secret electoral agreements. Britain later released its own accounts of the negotiations.
The Chinese official contends China will set up its own post-1997 administration and will not take responsibility for airport contracts and debts after that time. Aircraft using the proposed new multibillion-dollar airport would be denied use of Chinese airspace, Lu threatened.
"Should Patten go on doing it his own way, there will certainly be big chaos in Hong Kong," Lu said before his departure for the US. "I can tell everybody that we are now determined to persist with Mr. Patten till the end if that's what he wants."
"If [the proposals] work and work successfully for Hong Kong in 1995, then they will survive beyond 1997," Patten said yesterday, denying any secret deals and vowing to pursue the political reforms.
The Chinese pressure, aimed at stirring up distrust of Patten, is starting to have some effect, analysts say. Hong Kong, which for decades thrived under British domination, worries that Patten is taking too big a risk with the colony's prosperity.
In the wake of Beijing's onslaught, liberal and conservative legislators demanded that Patten disclose any backroom deals on the colony's future. The reforms, which the governor plans to introduce next year, must be approved by the legislature.
Yet by openly confronting Patten, Beijing is endangering its own vast investment in Hong Kong and the prosperity in southern China.
Analysts say Beijing is betting that beleaguered British Prime Minister John Major will be forced from office, undermining the position of Patten, a political confidant and former head of the Conservative Party.
China also is counting on Hong Kong to step back from political change if its well-being is under threat, observers say.