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China Denounces Hong Kong's Moves to Broaden Democracy

By Daniel Southerland
The Washington Post

China Thursday angrily declared that Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten's moves to broaden the British colony's limited democracy through electoral reforms had "slammed the door closed" on further negotiations with Britain over the island's future.

The denunciation from China came after Patten announced the second part of sweeping legislative reform bill. The proposed legislation concerns elections scheduled for 1995 - the last vote in Hong Kong before the colony returns to Chinese sovereignty July 1, 1997 - and it drops concessions offered earlier to Beijing.

Also Thursday, China's Foreign Ministry denounced Britain's decision to release a 36-page document describing confidential negotiations held by the two sides over a seven-month period last year. Much of what was publicized had already been published by the Hong Kong press during the talks, but details of concessions made by both sides were revealed.

Thursday's statements from both Beijing and Hong Kong seemed to indicate that China and Britain have reached a point of no return in the impasse over the scope of democracy to be granted to Hong Kong's 6 million residents when Beijing is in control.

China has promised to preserve Hong Kong's capitalist system for 50 years after resuming control but has consistently objected to limited changes in the colony's political system. Since taking over as governor in mid-1992, Patten has pursued a policy of institutionalizing some democratic legislative practices in an effort to make them more difficult for Beijing to change.

But the Chinese Foreign Ministry bluntly stated Thursday that when China assumes control in Hong Kong, it will "terminate" all three tiers of partially elected bodies there: the colony's Legislative Council, known as Legco, district boards, and municipal councils.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang said at a press briefing here Thursday that the two countries had had an understanding not to disclose details of their confidential talks, which began last April and halted in November with major disagreements unsolved.

Patten said China broke the understanding when Beijing's party-controlled People's Daily newspaper last month ran a description of the negotiations.

The bill announced by Patten, while angering China, fell short of demands made by many democracy advocates in Hong Kong. It would provide for 20 out of 60 seats on Legco to be directly elected.

The paper on the confidential talks released by Britain showed that the two sides disagreed sharply on the issue of "functional constituencies," through which business or professional groups rather than individuals, elect members of the legislature.

In the past, these constituences have had small electorates that chose Hong Kong's legislators and usually elected conservatives who opposed confrontation with China.

But Patten's bill - part of which was published in 1993 - called for increasing the election base from 110,000 to all of Hong Kong's 2.7 million adult workers.

Patten told Legco members Thursday that despite China's opposition to his bill, Britain wants to continue talks with the Chinese on other issues concerning Hong Kong's development. "Let us try to draw a line under this dispute and cooperate together in other areas in the interests of the people of Hong Kong," Patten said.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said that "during the more than 100 years of British rule, Hong Kong has never enjoyed democracy."

The British government has in fact never given Hong Kong the same measure of democratic government that the British people enjoy. But Hong Kong's residents are legally guaranteed basic human rights and freedom of speech and of the press.

Underlying the verbal battles between China and Britain are feelings of national pride. The Chinese at times seem to be recalling the Opium War of 1839 to 1842, when a powerful British navy defeated imperial China and forced the Chinese to cede the island.

The British want to show the world that they are securing the best possible deal for the people of Hong Kong, Britain's last colony.