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China Threatens to Dissolve Hong Kong Legislature

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING

China vowed Wednesday to begin preparations soon for dissolving the Hong Kong legislature in 1997 if the colony's British governor proceeds with his proposed political reforms.

Lu Ping, China's top official for Hong Kong affairs, said China would replace the legislature with a new one if Hong Kong's 1995 elections are held under Gov. Chris Patten's proposals to expand the crown colony's voting franchise and its number of elected legislators.

Under previous Sino-British plans for a smooth transition of power, the colonial legislature elected in 1995 is supposed to hold office until 1999, after the turnover.

Lu said elections for a new legislature would be held soon after the July 1997 shift and would conform to the Basic Law, the special constitution already developed by China for the region.

Lu warned the United States not to "meddle" in the Sino-British dispute by linking greater democracy in Hong Kong and renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status with the United States.

Noting that the United States has a significant financial interest in Hong Kong's long-term stability, he added: "I am confident the U.S. government will adopt a wise attitude."

Lu's remarks represent the most concrete threat by China since Patten first offered his reforms last fall. In an unusual move, his news conference was broadcast live on national Chinese television and in Hong Kong.

Under Patten's proposals, 39 of the Hong Kong legislature's 60 seats would be filled, directly or indirectly, by a form of popular election in 1995 and more residents would have votes.

But Chinese officials claim that under the Basic Law only 20 seats would be filled by direct elections by 1997.

Under China's plans, there would be 24 popularly elected seats in Hong Kong's 1999 elections and 30 in its 2003 elections. The Basic Law also holds out the possibility for a greater degree of democracy at a later but unspecified time.

Rising hopes that China and Britain would negotiate an end to the war of words over Patten's proposals were dashed last Friday when the governor formally published his proposed legislation, the first step toward bringing it before the Hong Kong legislature for approval.

Lu said Wednesday that Patten had "shut the door" on restarting talks by publishing his proposed reforms and divulging details of their initial negotiations.

"Under such circumstances, it is impossible for us to go ahead with talks," Lu said, adding that Patten will go down in Hong Kong history as a "man of guilt" for his actions.

Such personal attacks on the British governor have characterized the Chinese reaction to his proposals since last fall, suggesting that China will not settle for anything less than Patten stepping down from his office.

Hong Kong stock market players, though, apparently read Lu's remarks as more conciliatory than they anticipated.

Wednesday morning, the market dropped sharply in anticipation of Lu's news conference and on rumors that China might try to assert control over the colony before 1997.

But apparently buoyed by Lu's reassurance that China would not attempt a takeover, the market quickly recovered.