BRITAIN is trying - belatedly - to install more democracy in Hong Kong before London turns its colony over to China's control in 1997. Beijing is up in arms over the proposals to grant Hong Kong's 6 million residents more say in the composition of their legislative body. But Britain should press forward with the reforms, despite the Chinese bluster.
At issue are proposals announced last month by Christopher Patten, Britain's governor in Hong Kong, to indirectly expand the degree of popular voting for members of the colony's Legislative Council. In China's view, the reforms violate the spirit if not the letter of the Basic Law, the colony's constitution. (The Basic Law was drafted principally by Beijing as part of the 1984 agreement to transfer Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty when Britain's lease expires in less than five years.)
Under the Basic Law - which Beijing agreed to uphold for 50 years after the transfer - 20 of the Legislative Council's 60 seats will be filled by popular vote in 1995 elections. The remaining seats will be filled by district boards or by narrow "constituency" groups dominated by Beijing. Without altering that arrangement, Mr. Patten has proposed to open up the process by which the district boards and constituency groups are themselves selected.
Beijing has heatedly denounced the proposed reforms, impugned Britain's good faith, and threatened to roll any reforms back in 1997.
Beijing probably sees hypocrisy in Britain's sudden concern over representative government in Hong Kong. But where Britain went wrong was not in its 11th-hour conversion to democracy for the colony, but rather in its failure to introduce democratic practices over the last three decades.
Some elements of Hong Kong's prosperous business community, apprehensive about angering its soon-to-be new landlord, want Britain to stop rocking the boat. But polls show that the majority of Hong Kong's people favor more democracy. Though it should avoid provoking China into a stance that could ultimately harm Hong Kong's residents, Britain should not kowtow to men whose disdain for democracy was horrifically demonstrated at Tiananmen Square.