Beijing bristles as Hong Kong moves defiantly toward greater democracy


BEIJING -- Even as China reacted furiously to limited moves toward greater democracy in Hong Kong yesterday, the colony's British governor announced that he'll forge ahead with more sweeping political reforms.

The latest flare-up in the long-running Sino-British dispute reflects intense jockeying for power and political face with the approach in 1997 of the sunset of British rule over the wealthy trading port on China's southeast coast.

In Hong Kong yesterday, Gov. Chris Patten said he will submit to the colony's legislature on March 9 the remaining, key portions of his long-debated political proposals.

The proposals would increase the number of elected seats in the colony's legislature before the city's takeover by China in 40 months. China does not like the idea.

The governor's announcement came a half-day after Hong Kong's legislature approved some of the less controversial aspects of Mr. Patten's reform package in the face of Chinese threats.

These limited moves lower the colony's voting age from 21 to 18 and abolish appointed seats on Hong Kong's local councils.

Chinese officials in Beijing reacted yesterday with predictable anger to the vote, which democracy activists in Hong Kong termed a historic act of defiance by the city's mostly appointed and often conservative legislature.

Beijing reiterated its long-voiced threat to entirely dismantle Hong Kong's legislature and local councils elected under the new scheme once it comes to power July 1, 1997.

And China blamed Britain for "closing completely the door for resuming" the negotiations between the two nations over Mr. Patten's proposals -- bilateral talks that have dragged on fruitlessly for a year.

"During more than 100 years of British rule, Hong Kong has never enjoyed democracy, so it is with ulterior motives that the British side is pushing what it calls democracy," said Shen Guofang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, at a Beijing news conference.

"What is now at issue between China and the U.K. [United Kingdom] on the question of Hong Kong is, in essence, not whether Hong Kong should have democracy but whether commitment is to be honored," Mr. Shen said.

Under a prior agreement, Beijing had pledged to let Hong Kong govern itself for 50 years according to a separate, capitalist system outlined by a Chinese-drafted constitution known as the Basic Law.

But given that China views Mr. Patten's moves as an outright breach of the Basic Law, Beijing now may be moving toward setting up its own set of institutions to rule Hong Kong, even including a pre-1997 shadow government.

A Chinese-appointed group opened a two-day meeting in Beijing yesterday to discuss post-1997 arrangements for Hong Kong's legislature and its governor's office.

Mr. Patten was undeterred by China's fury yesterday. He fostered even more of it by releasing previously confidential details of the failed Sino-British negotiations.

"Our door is never closed," he said. "We want to talk on the whole range of issues, and talk constructively."

Hong Kong stock prices, still buoyed by foreign investors seeking to gain from China's economic explosion, reacted to the increased political turmoil by sinking 3 percent.

The dispute has lessened Sino-British cooperation on Hong Kong's new airport and port facilities, both costly projects essential to the city's future financial strength.

The reforms approved by Hong Kong's legislature early yesterday will be put in place in time for the city's district elections later this year.

But the strongest Chinese reactions have been reserved for the more sweeping proposals that Mr. Patten will submit next month.

Essentially, these would increase from 20 to 39 the number of elected seats up for grabs in the 60-member legislature in the colony's 1995 elections -- a legislature that is scheduled to stay in place until 1999, or two years into Chinese rule.

The legislature now has 18 elected seats.

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