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China: Analysis From Washington--Trading On Hong Kong's Future

Washington, 12 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - A Chinese newspaper has suggested that maintaining stability in its rebellious Xinjiang province will help provide a "favorable social and political environment" for Hong Kong's return to Beijing's control this July.

This statement, published in the March 5 "Xingjiang Daily," comes only one month after Chinese forces killed at least ten Uighur separatists and wounded 140 more in response to the most serious anti-Beijing demonstrations in that region since 1949.

But more than that, this statement -- one clearly endorsed by senior Chinese officials -- is a transparent warning to Western governments and human rights groups not to criticize the Chinese crackdown against Muslim separatists there.

If they do, the editorial implies, Beijing will respond by imposing an even harsher regime in Hong Kong once that city comes under Chinese control this summer and then blame Western governments for its own actions.

Given Western concerns about the future of that economically important city, such a threat is likely to carry a great deal of weight, especially in countries that currently have large trade ties with China.

During the past few months, Beijing has played on these concerns, suggesting more than once that China might close its market to the firms of any country that "meddles" in what Beijing sees as its own internal affairs.

But this latest statement linking Xinjiang and Hong Kong represents a significant hardening of Beijing's position. Moreover, it contains two additional and even more disturbing messages.

On the one hand, Beijing is clearly announcing that it will continue its crackdown in Xinjiang. And it will do so regardless of what anyone says.

The March 5 editorial underlined that by linking stability in Xinjiang to the successful holding of a Chinese Communist Party congress later in 1997, thus making stability there a "party obligation."

And on the other, the Chinese authorities are signalling what many in Hong Kong have feared but what few elsewhere have been prepared to acknowledge: Beijing is ready and perhaps eager to use harsh measures to impose its power in Hong Kong.

As in the past, China will likely behave as it sees fit in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong regardless of what Western governments or human rights groups say.

But Beijing's latest effort to block Western criticism suggests a new nervousness among some Chinese leaders about what they are doing or may be forced to do in the facing of increasing Muslim activism in Xinjiang.

And this nervousness in turn has led them to adopt a public position that could backfire if Western leaders recognize that Beijing's policies toward its ethnic minorities and that its intentions regarding Hong Kong are anything but benign.

Should that happen, at least some in the West might decide to deploy its trade weapon to make Beijing pay a price for continued violations of international standards of human rights.

And they might insist on further guarantees from Beijing before Britain hands control of Hong Kong back to China.

Given the West's past unwillingness to do more than criticize China on these issues, however, Beijing has clearly decided that its threats are worth making precisely because they are likely to work.