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Beijing to Reassure West On Hong Kong Transition

Chinese diplomat seeks to discredit British-proposed reforms

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Calculating that Hong Kong will lose interest in democracy if its prosperity is threatened, China has launched a risky offensive against political reform in the British colony.

Lu Ping, the Beijing spokesman who led a verbal broadside against the proposed electoral changes of Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten, visits the United States this week to boost confidence in the colony's transition to Chinese rule in 1997.

Yet that confidence is now at stake in the row that broke out between China's ruling Communists and Britain when Mr. Patten unveiled the reforms and traveled to Beijing last month.

Beijing denounced Patten's political proposals and airport financing plan with some of the toughest rhetoric used since it blamed Hong Kong for helping the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

Those proposals, calling for raising the number of directly elected seats in the 60-member legislature from 20 to 39 in a 1995 election, changing Hong Kong's constituency system, and increasing welfare spending, were aimed at meeting local demand for democracy without antagonizing Beijing.

Instead, the proposals have triggered an outburst by China which is as enraged over Patten's free-wheeling political style.

"After years of domination and humiliation [by Britain], Beijing sees this as the final insult," an Asian diplomat says in Beijing.

In the last week, Mr. Lu, who heads the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, has taken the lead in a criticism barrage, predicting that the colony is headed for "chaos" and "disaster" under the Patten formula.

At the last minute, China called off a seminar on Hong Kong's transition to Chinese sovereignty and has raised the possibility of canceling a visit this month by Chinese Vice Premier Zhu Rongji to Britain.

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