Britain has tried to smooth the way for Chinese control of Hong Kong by a detailed agreement with China. But it is clear that no agreement, however detailed or binding under the rules of international law, could entirely reassure the people of Hong Kong that this financial center of Asia will remain substantially free of interference from Peking.
Ending his second diplomatic mission to Hong Kong and Peking this year, Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, said, ''I think one of the features which is most noteworthy about the position of China and the Chinese government is the respect which it shows for international agreements. It is for that reason that we are seeking to achieve a binding international agreement ... and have made such important progress toward that and the prospect of increasing and continued prosperity'' for China and Hong Kong.
However, Sir Geoffrey admitted, ''There is a limit to the guarantees that any statesman . . . can give about the future.''
At a press conference here Wednesday afternoon, Sir Geoffrey announced the key provisions agreed to so far in discussions with the Peking government. These include the preservation of Hong Kong's legal system, a high degree of autonomy in economic and trade policies, retention of the colony's status as a free port and as a separate customs territory, the continuing convertibility of the Hong Kong dollar, and the freedom to move capital into and out of Hong Kong.
The agreement also ''will provide for the preservation of all the rights and freedoms which the people of Hong Kong now enjoy,'' he said.
A number of issues have yet to be settled, he said, including key provisions concerning land, civil aviation, and the nationality of Hong Kong residents. Discussions on these and other matters will continue at the 20th round of Sino-British talks, set in Peking for Aug. 8.
China's proposal to set up a Joint Liaison Group to assist in the 1997 transition from British to Chinese control of the territory has raised special concern here. Many Hong Kong Chinese fear that such a group in Hong Kong would become a shadow government, gaining in power as the sun sets on Britain's administration of its last important colony.
Sir Geoffrey said that although Britain had agreed to establish a Joint Liaison Group, the functions of the group have been carefully defined. The Liaison Group would consist of members appointed both by China and Britain, and while it will be established at the time the agreement is approved - probably at the end of this year - it would not be based in Hong Kong until four years later.
''The group will not be an organ of power; it will have no supervisory role; it will play no part in the administration of Hong Kong,'' the British foreign secretary said. Also, the group will continue its work of liaison and consultation up to the year 2000, he said.
He also gave assurances that Britain will continue to administer Hong Kong until 1997, when the lease on the largest portion of the territory expires.
''Let there be no doubt that we shall fulfill that responsibility right up to that date,'' he said.
Sir Geoffrey returned to Hong Kong Tuesday after three days of talks in Peking with China's top leaders, which included a 11/2-hour session with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and lengthy meetings with Premier Zhao Ziyang and Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian. At the conclusion of these discussions, China's New China News Agency reported Foreign Minister Wu as saying that a ''breakthrough'' had been achieved.
Premier Zhao reportedly told Sir Geoffrey that closer cooperation between China and Britain could be expected after the Hong Kong issue is settled.
''I have not the slightest doubt that after the smooth settlement of the Hong Kong question, a question left over from history, relations between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom will further develop in a comprehensive way, reaching a new high,'' the Chinese premier said.
Peking officials were positive in their assessment of the progress made in talks with Britain, dispelling speculation that the two parties were divided on several important issues.
One such issue was the amount of detail to be contained in the final agreement. It is not yet clear how much detail there will be, although Sir Geoffrey said there will be a number of annexes to the main agreement which will spell out specific arrangements on the key issues.
Britain has wanted a detailed agreement, arguing that it would be easier to present to the British Parliament for approval and would be the best guarantee of Hong Kong's future status. China wanted an agreement stating only basic principles, but apparently has made concessions on this point.
Another difficulty in the talks had been China's unilaterally imposed deadline of September for the completion of a draft agreement. Britain had resisted meeting this target date, but now appears ready to complete negotiations by the end of that month.
A third sticking point was smoothed over when Britain agreed - despite strong opposition from Hong Kong groups - to set up the Joint Liaison Group, which Deng Xiaoping proposed during Sir Geoffrey's visit to Peking last April.
One early reaction to Sir Geoffrey's assurances on the Joint Liaison Group came from Hong Kong community leader Lau Lai Keong in a television interview.
''A lot of Hong Kong people are still suspicious of this Joint Liaison Group, thinking it might become a supergovernment, something we cannot have control over. I think after working for four years, Hong Kong people will understand exactly what it is all about and will become more (agreeable) to this new idea, '' he said.
China's position on the 19th-century treaty ceding Hong Kong Island and Kowloon to Britain and leasing the New Territories has been an ambiguous one. It regards the treaty as having been imposed against its will and therefore void or at least voidable.
Therefore, beyond the usual risks involved in all political agreements, any understanding between Britain and China over Hong Kong is beset by special and probably unprecedented difficulties.
''I can't think of any treaty China has not complied with that it's signed,'' said Peter Wesley-Smith, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on the Hong Kong treaties.
But, he said, there is a ''difference involving international agreements and one in which China commits herself to an agreement concerning its own territory over which it is sovereign.''
Other foreign observers point out, however, that in the 35 years since the Communists came to power on the mainland, China has exercised remarkable restraint in not interfering in Hong Kong.
Mao Tse-tung even called off Red Guard demonstrations in Hong Kong during the height the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s.
There is no agreement among experts about the reasons for such noninterference and restraint, but it could be a cause for hope for the future despite the deep suspicions toward Peking held by many Hong Kong Chinese.