London -- If the Chinese marched into Hong Kong tomorrow, three years ahead of schedule, the outside world would do nothing apart from wring its hands.
For the British, even taking on relatively puny Argentina over the Falkland Islands nearly ended in military disaster. Besides, there's no Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street to consider such a dare. The U.S., for its part, well knows that China, on this one, holds all the military aces. The Pentagon's busy contingency planners have studiously ignored Hong Kong.
So why don't the Chinese do it? Governor Chris Patten and his democracy plans irritate them mightily. Since he first announced a year ago that he would bequeath Hong Kong on take-over day, July 1, 1997, a functioning, even if patchwork, democracy, a surly Beijing has hurled uncouth invective in the governor's direction, and made every round of negotiation an exercise in verbal attrition.
Yet now, just as Mr. Patten, after long procrastination, places the most controversial of his proposals before the Hong Kong legislature today, the Chinese have suddenly gone uncannily quiet. If not an invasion or siege (cutting off the water, for example), many had expected severe disruption and disarray in the Hong Kong-Beijing relationship.
Nothing of the sort appears to be in the offing. Of course, some threatening barbs may be expected in the speeches at this week's National People's Congress. But the Chinese must always to be judged by what they do, not what they say.
The Hong Kong succession plays against the regime succession crisis that has now erupted in China. Every major political transition in a totalitarian culture has its visual moment -- habitually the funeral cortege. For China it was the unexpected airing last month on Chinese television of a visibly senile 89-year-old Deng Xiaoping. This man, whatever is pumped out to the wire services in his name, rules no more.
What does this mean for Mr. Patten? It surely means that China is on hold. There'll be no important changes in Beijing's policy. The Chinese will go on resisting Mr. Patten's reforms, but they will not dare up the ante for fear that the situation might spin out of control and demand new decisions, which they are not in a position to make. Mr. Deng in his heyday might have been prepared to raise the stakes, but his understudies have neither the personal authority nor the political facts for such risk-taking.
The other side of this coin is that if Beijing's policy won't change for the worse, it won't change for the better. There's no chance that China will just decide to capitulate. It will continue to swear that once it takes over it will dissolve everything that Mr. Patten instituted.
This is not something to worry about. There are two possible ways things might go.
If Mr. Deng dies before the take-over, the last thing a freshman helmsman, no matter how authoritarian, will want to do is to face the hurricane of a confrontation with Hong Kong. It would consume too much capital, partly political but, more important, financial. Faced with the overriding priority of controlling China's own anarchic capitalist revolution, it would be an unwelcome diversion -- and, more- over, folly to risk drying up a principal source of investment capital.
Alternatively, Mr. Deng might linger on for a few years, with doctors laboring feverishly, as Spanish doctors did with Francisco Franco, to keep the old icon alive, despite whatever pain, nausea and discomfort it causes the poor man himself.
That would probably mean that in the end a new leadership would feel duty-bound to implement what Mr. Deng has apparently decreed, the dismantling of Hong Kong's legislative structures. Doubtless, they will try to, although their present relative reticence suggests that their hearts are not in it.
Those Chinese leaders who are more intelligent than doctrinaire -- and there are a number of them -- know that if they value their capitalist revolution, Hong Kong's seeds must be planted in Chinese soil -- not just Hong Kong's vast sources of capital and expertise, but its rule of law, its regulating institutions, its modern financial system with a well functioning stock market, its code of private property rights and its effective banking system. If they have to allow Hong Kong to keep its democracy to gain access to all this, they'll probably live with the democracy, as long as it's confined to Hong Kong.
Mr. Patten has already won, as long as the Hong Kong voters stand behind him. He has done what many people said was impossible -- stand up to the Chinese. Hong Kong can reap its reward, if it keeps its courage when and if Beijing's challenge comes.Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.