China is looking for ways to talk to the people of Hong Kong, but its choice of channel is fomenting yet another dispute with the colonial government.

The tussle over China's demand for access to Hong Kong's airwaves is indicative of the distrust that prevails in the days before the British colony once again becomes part of China on July 1, 1997.

China wants the government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) to give air time to the Preparatory Committee, the 150 Hong Kong and Chinese delegates hand-picked by Beijing to manage the transfer of sovereignty.

The Chinese say that, given the committee's quasi-official role, it should be allowed to reach out to the public through the taxpayer-funded broadcasting system. But the demand is seen here as heavy-handed, arousing fears that Beijing views Hong Kong's media the way it views its own - as pliant tools of government.

"The fundamental problem between the People's Republic of China and Hong Kong is that there's such a huge culture gap that neither really understands the other," says Michael DeGolyer, an American analyst tracking the change of sovereignty.

The issue is one of several linked to the historic change of sovereignty, chief among them China's insistence on disbanding Hong Kong's elected legislature and appointing a temporary assembly to prepare fresh elections in 1998.

Air time is part of a list of "requests for cooperation" that China reportedly has handed to Hong Kong authorities.

The government says it wants to work with the Preparatory Committee. But it is unlikely to agree to help the provisional legislature, which it views as undemocratic and unwarranted, and will probably seek clarification before accepting the demand for air time.

Competing with two independent commercial radio stations, RTHK runs seven English and Chinese channels and puts public-interest programs on Hong Kong's commercial TV stations. Martin Clarke, head of RTHK's Radio 3 English channel, notes that RTHK hosts Gov. Chris Patten's most vigorous critics and regularly airs debates between pro- and anti-Beijing figures.

It's a sharp contrast to the Preparatory Committee, which sees itself as a quasi-governmental body and conducts its proceedings in private.

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