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China Should Go Easy on Hong Kong

LU PING, China's proconsul for Hong Kong, was in the United States last month taking quiet soundings about American attitudes to Beijing's current tough-guy attitude on the British colony.

Hong Kong and its predominantly Chinese, primarily anticommunist, population are to come under Beijing's rule in 1997. While there is no changing that deadline, there is an angry debate going on about the amount of internal democracy Hong Kong should have, come takeover time.

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A new, and probably the last, British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has proposed reforms that would substantially increase the number of Hong Kong citizens voting for certain categories of local legislators. They are not the kind of reforms that would make apostles of democracy swoon with ecstasy; nonelected officials would still dominate and control the legislature. Still, they offer a semblance of local self-government to a people soon to be unwillingly consigned to communist rule.

Modest though the changes are, they have sent Beijing into a tantrum, even though China does not yet rule Hong Kong. The Chinese government is treating the British government, and especially Mr. Patten, to all the formal frigidity they are capable of mustering. They have threatened to scrap the agreement that would permit Hong Kong to pursue its capitalist ways even after the 1997 takeover. They claim that Patten is trying to rewrite the agreement and sneak through changes that never were contemplated.

The Chinese have half a point. The problem is that the agreement the British masterminded in 1984 was a deplorable abdication of principle by Margaret Thatcher. Ironically, Prime Minister Thatcher, who reacted with Wagnerian-like wrath against the hapless Argentinians who occupied the British Falklands, agreed to turn over Hong Kong to the Chinese with a docility bordering upon cravenness. Again ironically, it is now the government of Prime Minister John Major, the man of gentle compromise, that is showi ng some mettle in the face of Chinese intransigence and attempting to bring Britain's rule of Hong Kong to a close with some grace and honor.

In "unofficial" meetings organized by the New York-based National Committee on US-China Relations, Mr. Lu made China's case to American businessmen, congressmen, the American Enterprise Institute, members of the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as officials at the State Department and National Security Council staffers.

If there was a consensus to the American response, according to sources close to the discussions, it was: (l) There is no US interest in destabilizing Hong Kong; (2) With their traditional approach to human rights, Americans favor more democracy for Hong Kong; (3) China should demonstrate more flexibility in its approach to the Chris Patten formula.

It is a message one hopes Lu (his official title is Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, State Council, People's Republic of China) is able to articulate clearly to the highest levels of China's leadership.

In pragmatic terms, a crisis of confidence over Hong Kong's future could hobble the extraordinary economic growth which Hong Kong investors have stimulated in the adjoining Chinese borderlands. In political terms, how China handles the Hong Kong situation could be a touchstone for China's relationship with the West, and particularly the new Clinton administration.

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Though the US is not directly involved in the Hong Kong negotiations, it has major commercial interests in Hong Kong, much vaster potential interests in the economic expansion now under way in southern China, and acute concern that China's overall economic development should be matched by orderly political transition from a repressive communist system.

During his election campaign, President-elect Clinton promised a more vigilant response than the Bush administration to China's human rights offenses. Since his victory, he has seemed somewhat more ambivalent.

Many Hong Kong Chinese have already fled once from communism. The least they deserve as they prepare to live under that banner again is a signal that America cares.

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