Hong Kong fails to win more democracy from China

October 23, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten leaves here today the same as he arrived three days ago: at loggerheads with Chinese officials over his proposals for expanding democracy in the British colony prior to its 1997 takeover by China.

After almost 12 hours of meetings with Chinese officials, Mr. Patten last night reported no progress in selling them on his plans to increase the number of elected members of Hong Kong's legislature in the colony's 1995 elections, its last before Chinese rule.

But Mr. Patten -- a former head of Britain's Conservative Party who assumed the governorship last summer and likely will be the colony's last British administrator -- vowed to stick by his proposals.

He also indicated that, even without China's agreement, he will start planning for the expanded 1995 elections early next year. "Time isn't on our side," he said of the need to end the Sino-British dispute soon.

But China ultimately has time on its side.

Beijing insists Mr. Patten's proposals violate Hong Kong's Basic Law, which stems from a 1984 Sino-British agreement on the transfer of power over the colony in 1997.

China has threatened to dismantle any political structures left by the British in 1997 that it believes violate the Basic Law.

Mr. Patten has proposed that two-thirds of the 60-member legislature would be directly or indirectly elected in Hong Kong's last colonial election in 1995 and the base of eligible voters would be expanded dramatically.

The Basic Law says no more than 20 seats can be directly elected by 1997. Mr. Patten technically honored that limit, but exploited apparent loopholes in the Basic Law to expand the degree of democracy in the filling of another 19 seats.

Mr. Patten's democratic reforms, first pitched three weeks ago in his maiden speech to the colony's legislature, "will have a great impact on Hong Kong's stability and the losses will be hard to estimate," the overseas edition of People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, warned this week.

While Mr. Patten said last night he had been treated in Beijing "with unfailing courtesy," his stand-off with China remains acrimonious.

The opening of the governor's meetings here Wednesday coincided with Beijing-backed newspapers leveling unusually tough personal accusations against him. They called him a "dictator" who was "playing political tricks and putting on a show."

And yesterday, the governor was handed a clear diplomatic snub when he was not granted an audience with Chinese Premier Li Peng, the usual practice during earlier visits by previous Hong Kong governors.

But, if China is resolved to block any increase in democracy in Hong Kong prior to reclaiming it after 155 years of British rule, Mr. Patten now appears equally set on leaving a legacy of more self-rule there.

China's rapidly growing economic interests in Hong Kong mean it also has a clear stake in not pushing this dispute to a head.

A third of all Chinese trade moves through Hong Kong, and China has become a major investor there. Anything that might set Hong Kong on edge also would affect Beijing's bottom line.

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