Hong Kong's Dwindling Hopes For Democracy

The ornate governor's mansion in Hong Kong with its dozens of servants in livery seems an unlikely place to send rough-and-tumble British politician Christopher F. Patten. But Prime Minister John Major, in appointing the architect of his reelection campaign to the governorship, is sending someone with the clout needed to handle the critical last five years before the colony is handed over to China.

Patten, the ambitious Conservative Party chairman who lost his seat in Parliament, will want his performance in the colony to further his career. But he has a tough balancing act coming up. He must get Beijing, which scorned outgoing Governor Sir David C. Wilson as a mere functionary, to deal directly with him rather than London. And he risks being caught between a powerful business community that does not want to offend its new masters on the mainland and increasingly influential Hong Kong civil libertarians. The latter see Patten as their last hope to reverse British backsliding that has seriously eroded the "high degree of autonomy" promised in the 1984 Joint Declaration between London and Beijing.

Patten's job will be made tougher by the Hong Kong public's sinking regard for the British. Polls show that confidence that the British will protect Hong Kong from the Communists is falling fast. The problem is that it looks as if the 50 years of self-rule promised by the Joint Declaration instead will turn into an authoritarian state run by local loyalists to the Communists. China recently made a big show of naming 44 such "advisers."

Although the American and British business communities are leery, most Chinese businessmen in Hong Kong say they don't object to such an arrangement--because Beijing seems unlikely to tamper with the thriving capitalist system. The dwindling prospects for democracy have not stopped stock prices, real estate values, and investments from reaching record levels in the past two years. Hong Kong's top tycoons, including billionaires Li Ka-shing and Cheng Yu-tung, have built solid ties with China's power brokers. "The political situation is very stable," says a Hong Kong-Chinese financier. "As long as it stays that way, investment will still come."

ACTIVIST WATCH. But there's no guarantee the Hong Kong public will be so quiescent. One million poured into the streets in June, 1989, to protest the Tiananmen Square bloodbath. If Hong Kong were a democracy, the Prime Minister would probably be United Democrats party leader Martin Lee, a British-educated lawyer, whom Beijing regards as a "subversive." Hints by top cadres that a new Bill of Rights will be repealed and disclosures that China's representatives in Hong Kong are keeping tabs on activists raise fears of a looming clash.

In accepting the governorship on Apr. 24, Patten vowed to put "the interests of Hong Kong" foremost. Indeed, a governor not as fearful as Wilson of Beijing's displeasure could take many measures to make the largely appointed legislature and other branches of government more democratic. "The Wilson government has been disastrous for the development of democratic institutions," says Lee.

While Patten may get more respect and ink than the colorless Wilson, there is reason to doubt he'll be very different in substance. "He will probably be cautious about making any changes to the pattern that is well-established," says former Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior, now chairman of Britain's General Electric Co. No matter what the British say as they try to exit Hong Kong gracefully, their priority is in keeping good ties to a major trading partner: China.

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