GOV. Chris Patten thrust Hong Kong into a volatile new period yesterday, declaring that time is running out in Britain's standoff with China over democracy in the colony.
In an address that many analysts say risks deeply angering China, Mr. Patten staunchly defended his efforts to boost democracy in Hong Kong and warned that, if negotiations with China fail to produce an agreement soon, he will ask the colony's Legislative Council to give final approval to his proposals for political change.
`` `One country, two systems.' That is what I wish to see. I must and will stand up for our system,'' the governor said in an emotional finale to a two-hour speech. ``If we are not prepared to stand up for Hong Kong's way of life today, what chance of doing so tomorrow?''
In an initial reaction, a spokesman for the New China News Agency, Beijing's official representative in Hong Kong, said relations between the two have become ``worse.'' ``We need more than talk. We need action,'' he said, dismissing the governor's remarks.
If talks between China and Britain fail, Hong Kong legislators and analysts say the colony faces even more uncertainty than it did when Patten first unveiled his plan a year ago. China, which is due to regain the colony in 1997, has vehemently opposed Britain's political reforms, worrying that more open democracy in Hong Kong could stir demands for reform on the mainland.
A new round of talks between China and Britain, the 13th in five months, will be held next week. In early November, Patten is due to meet Prime Minister John Major in London to decide whether to end talks and seek legislative action on the proposals.
Political observers say shifting the battle to the colony's Chinese legislature will widen the bitter divide in the colony where democracy activists cheer the governor's efforts, businessmen condemn them for battering economic confidence, and many of the colony's 5.7 million residents have grown weary of the political strife.
``It's going to be months of hell,'' predicts Christine Loh, a legislator who backs the Patten plan. ``China is really going to put the heat up. And some people are going to say, `How dare the British put us through this heat. In four years, we're the ones who are going to be singed.' ''
Still, Ms. Loh, a prominent businesswoman who has pressed the governor to submit his plan for legislative action for months, questions whether the British will have the resolve to follow through now and suggests Patten's near ultimatum may prompt last-minute Chinese compromises to match recent British concessions.
``I remain doubtful at this stage about British intentions. All this blustering, but show us the goods,'' she said. ``I am not entirely convinced the Chinese won't come back at the 11th hour, 55 minutes and 55 seconds, because otherwise China will be allowing Britain to go its own way for four years.''