BEIJING -- China vowed yesterday to begin preparations soon for dissolving the Hong Kong legislature in 1997 if the colony's British governor proceeds with his proposed political reforms.
Lu Ping, China's top official for Hong Kong affairs, said China will replace the legislature with a new one if Hong Kong's 1995 elections are held under Gov. Chris Patten's proposals to expand the colony's voting franchise and the number of elected legislators.
Under previous Chinese-British plans for a smooth transition of power, the colonial legislature elected in 1995 is supposed to hold office until 1999, two years after the colony reverts to Chinese rule.
Mr. Lu said elections for a new legislature would be held soon after the July 1997 shift and would conform to the Basic Law, the special constitution already developed by China for the region.
Mr. Lu warned the United States not to "meddle" in the Chinese-British dispute by linking greater democracy in Hong Kong and the renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status with the United States.
Noting that the United States has a significant financial interest in Hong Kong's long-term stability, he said, "I am confident the U.S. government will adopt a wise attitude."
Mr. Lu's comments marked the most concrete threat by China since Mr. Patten first offered his reforms last fall. In an unusual move, his news conference was broadcast live on Chinese national television and in Hong Kong.
Under Mr. Patten's proposals, 39 of the Hong Kong legislature's 60 seats would be filled, directly or indirectly, by a form of popular election in 1995 and more residents would be able to vote.
Chinese officials say that under the Basic Law only 20 seats should be filled by direct elections by 1997.
Under China's plan, there would be 24 popularly elected seats in Hong Kong's 1999 elections and 30 in its 2003 elections. The Basic Law also holds out the possibility of greater of democracy at a later but unspecified time.
Rising hopes that China and Britain might negotiate an end to the bitter war of words over Mr. Patten's proposals were --ed Friday when the governor formally published his proposed legislation, the first step toward bringing it before the Hong Kong legislature for approval.
Mr. Lu said yesterday that Mr. Patten had "shut the door" on restarting talks, both by publishing his reforms and by divulging details of the initial negotiations.
"Under such circumstances, it is impossible for us to go ahead with talks," Mr. Lu said, adding that Mr. Patten will go down in Hong Kong history as a "man of guilt" for his actions.
Such personal attacks on the British governor have characterized the Chinese reaction to his proposals since last fall, suggesting that China will not settle for anything less than Mr. Patten's stepping down.
Hong Kong investors, however, apparently read Mr. Lu's remarks as more conciliatory than they anticipated.
Yesterday morning, the stock market dropped sharply in anticipation of Mr. Lu's news conference and on rumors that China might try to assert control over the colony before 1997.
But, apparently buoyed by Mr. Lu's reassurance that China would not attempt an early takeover, the market quickly recovered.