Beijing courts politicians to aid Hong Kong handover Communists appeal to colony's Democrats

negotiations improve

September 21, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HONG KONG -- Six months ago, China was flirting with disaster in Hong Kong.

With little over a year to go before Britain was to hand back the colony, Beijing seemed unprepared to run the international financial center of 6 million people. The Chinese were still calling Hong Kong's most popular politicians traitors and all but refusing to deal seriously with nuts and bolts issues, from who would be allowed to live in the territory to which airlines could land at its airport.

Now, with nine months to go, China is changing course.

In negotiations with Britain over the transition, it has dropped its trench-warfare tactics, allowing progress on several fronts. And it has assiduously courted Hong Kong's democratically elected politicians, trying to co-opt some and push the rest to the margins.

While no one predicts a smooth handover June 30, a fumble no longer seems inevitable.

"The Chinese had been getting information from their advisers in Hong Kong that their hard-line stance was leading to disaster," said Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project at Hong Kong Baptist University. "Somebody got the message and it triggered a rethink."

That new tack has been obvious since late summer, when top Chinese leaders met at a seaside resort for their annual summit and realized they were facing one of the country's toughest foreign policy challenges in decades.

For a poor communist state to take over a sophisticated capitalist colony would be tough in the best of circumstances. But it was going to be impossible with negotiations between Britain and China bogged down in a maze of minutia designed not so much to obtain results but to show that China could stand up to its former imperialist antagonist.

Chinese negotiators even balked, for example, at Britain's suggestion that the handover ceremony include a handshake between departing British and arriving Chinese officials.

Such quibbles have now been smoothed over.

A key reason for the change is that Chinese President Jiang Zemin has taken over responsibility for Hong Kong from more junior ministers. With Jiang eager to win re-election next year as Communist Party general secretary and to secure a place for himself in history, Hong Kong must remain a successful, prosperous city -- hence, the transition must be handled smoothly.

On top of that are growing tensions with Taiwan, the breakaway island republic run by a rival Chinese government. Jiang and fellow leaders have been concerned over the past year that Taiwan wants to declare independence. If China could make a success of Hong Kong, they reason, then Taiwanese citizens might eventually accept rule by Beijing.

"It's only latterly, as the horizon approaches, that things have moved along better," said Hugh Davies, Britain's senior representative on the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, which is negotiating details of the handover. "They've suddenly come up against the reality that they have to take over and run the place."

The tempo, for example, is picking up on the number of civil aviation agreements signed between Hong Kong and other countries. Britain had negotiated these and they now must be approved by China.

A deadlock between Britain and China over financing construction of a badly needed container terminal has also been broken, allowing the world's busiest port to continue growing.

"The atmospherics have improved," Davies said. "We're seeing more expert groups tackling concrete problems."

That means that while no one is exactly sure of the residency requirements for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, SAR as it will be known, constructive talks are proceeding.

China has also set a timetable to pick the SAR's leader, who will replace the colony's British governor after Britain leaves at midnight June 30. Although few Democrats in Hong Kong agree with the selection process, which they say is rigged to favor people partial to Beijing, someone will at least be in place by the year's end.

At the same time, China is trying to improve its image by making overtures to Hong Kong's most popular politicians -- all of them democratically elected and most of them critical of China's decisions to abolish the colony's bill of rights and other democratic structures.

"They now believe they are in control of the situation and would like to win back the hearts of the Hong Kong people before the transfer of sovereignty," said Martin Lee, head of Hong Kong's largest party, the Democratic Party.

Last month, for example, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said he was willing to talk to the Democrats. Lee, while still refusing to serve on Beijing's advisory committees, which he says will oversee the dismantling of Hong Kong's democratic organizations, says he too is willing to go to Beijing to talk.

"People being wooed is a fact of life, ever since Adam and Eve," Lee said.

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