To an outsider, the dispute between Hong Kong and China seems like a tempest in a teapot. After all, the argument is about increasing the number of directly elected seats on the Crown Colony's legislative council--from 20 to perhaps 40 out of 60. By no means does this amount to representative government, as the Chinese fear. Yet Beijing's stern warnings to desist from the plan have upset the Hong Kong business community, triggering gyrations in the stock market.
The dispute has been inflamed by two issues: Governor Chris Patten went public with the plan apparently without much consultation with the Chinese. This mortified Beijing, which felt it had lost face. Second, the Politburo is afraid that any change could quickly spread to South China, whose booming economy is directly linked to Hong Kong's.
It's easy to be cynical about the British timing. After all, they have been ruling Hong Kong for 150 years, so why the sudden interest in democracy? But it is because of the British that Hong Kong enjoys fundamental rights that don't exist in China, such as the rule of law and civil liberties. Preservation of these rights, they say, is the motive for making changes before the 1995 elections--the last Hong Kong will hold before China takes over in 1997.
There is plenty of common ground for resolving the dispute quietly, without China losing face. Any backsliding by Beijing could deter the foreign investment so crucial to the Chinese boom. For Washington, the proper response is to support bilateral talks on electoral reform. But the U.S. should also make it clear that China must move toward democracy and human-rights guarantees in both Hong Kong and China. If Beijing is unwilling to accept reform, pressure is likely to build in Congress to deny it most-favored-nation status. That would hurt both China and Hong Kong. The two sides should work things out--pronto.