Peking's recent criticism of Hong Kong's political reform efforts has upset the fragile sense of confidence this British colony has achieved in recent months. A comment by Xu Jiatun, Peking's senior representative here, sent shares tumbling on the local stock market and aroused heated reponses from many analysts and politicians here. It has also divided the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's lawmaking body, which now includes elected officials for the first time.
Mr. Xu warned that political developments in Hong Kong had deviated from the terms of an accord signed last December under which the colony reverts to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
This tendency to deviate, Xu said, ``cannot be ignored.'' He did not spell out what developments he was referring to, but analysts say his remarks were aimed at a series of reforms that led to September's elections. Xu was signaling China's unhappiness with these reforms despite a guarantee from Peking of 50 years of self-rule under Chinese sovereignty.
``We really do not want to see a situation in which the present state of affairs will be greatly changed in the next 12 years,'' Xu added.
Officials in Peking later appeared to retract Xu's remarks. And in the atmosphere of mounting tension, British and Chinese officials announced this past weekend that a senior Peking representative would visit the territory for talks with government leaders.
Officials here hope the occasion will help restore Hong Kong's lapsing faith in the year-old agreement under which the territory returns to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, when Britain's leases on the colony expire.
``Our feeling is that Hong Kong cannot be properly understood by reading about it on paper,'' a senior British source said Sunday. ``We hope the Chinese are planning this visit with open minds.''
Ji Pengfei, who heads Peking's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, will be the highest Chinese official to visit Hong Kong since the communist takeover in 1949. As a state councillor, he holds vice-premier rank.
The most spirited arguments in the Legislative Council last week came from those who support the current pace of Hong Kong's reforms.
``It is useless for the leaders of China to shout from their housetops across the border that they will not interfere,'' said Martin Lee, a legislator and a prominent local lawyer.
``Show us,'' Mr. Lee added with a note of defiance.
Mr. Lee termed Xu's remarks ``an attempt to intervene'' in Hong Kong's affairs during the transition to Chinese sovereignty.
``Unless we have direct elections, we will never have an effective and highly autonomous government to keep our system separate from the rest of China,'' he added.
Many analysts doubt that Mr. Ji's arrival here will soften such arguments. At the same time, Chinese officials were apparently tense on the subject of reform during a round of talks last week that chiefly covered Hong Kong's commercial treaties.
``They are alarmed at the extent to which Hong Kong has the bit between its teeth as far as Hong Kong people running Hong Kong,'' says a British source here.
``Hong Kong people running Hong Kong'' was a slogan adopted by the Chinese two years ago, when local confidence in the territory's future was at a low ebb. Peking had dropped the phrase in the year since the Sino-British agreement was signed.