London, 22 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Six months after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has praised China's rulers for keeping the territory "genuinely free" and allowing it a high degree of autonomy.
But Cook, speaking on his first visit since the handover, also said Britain has real concerns about the Hong Kong government's plan to limit the democratic say of voters in elections next May.
He urged Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to broaden the number of those allowed to vote in special constituencies, saying it is vital that the elections are "free and fair and seen to be so."
Britain lowered the Union Flag over Hong Kong for the last time at midnight on June 30, ending more than 150 years of colonial rule over this small territory at the mouth of China's Pearl River.
In the run-up to the handover, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong warned that the Beijing takeover would lead to a loss of civil liberties, the erosion of free speech and a fettered press.
However, so far, the colony's Canontese Chinese rulers, who are mostly drawn from Hong Kong's own elites, not from the mainland, have been largely left alone to run the territory themselves.
In his speech today, Cook said that Beijing appears to be keeping its promises that the territory would get a high degree of autonomy as a Special Administrative Region of China. Under the handover deal, China pledged to let Hong Kong's 6.5 million people keep their capitalist way of life for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" formula of China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. (Deng famously said that: "It doesn't matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.")
Cook said that Hong Kong has "retained its character as a genuinely free and prosperous society." But he qualified his praise, saying China did not have "a uniformly positive scoreboard."
He noted that Britain protested when China replaced Hong Kong's elected legislature with an unelected body after taking over last July. He also said Britain has "real concerns" with the Hong Kong government's plan to limit voting franchises in the May elections.
Human rights activists are critical of new election rules, saying they are designed to prevent pro-democracy groups, who won one-third of legislature seats in 1995, from repeating their strong show.
Under the new rules, 30 percent of the legislature's 60 seats will be returned by business and professional groups in "functional constituencies" -- in effect, this means voting by companies. This greatly limits the number of people eligible to vote in the category.
Beijing long-standing charge against Britain is that it only belatedly installed democracy in Hong Kong after 150 years of colonial rule when most people were denied a vote. (A Chinese newspaper once said: "It is like a prostitute who, having sold her body all her life, suddenly gives up business to begin preaching chastity, and telling people to value their bodies like jade".)
In his remarks today, Cook, who arrived from meeting Chinese leaders in Beijing, said that Britain will be watching closely to see that the Hong Kong elections are "free and fair."
But Martin Lee, leader of the popular Democratic Party, who was among the legislators thrown out of office when China took over, accused Britain of softening its criticism of the electoral changes. He said the new election rules are "clearly unfair", and said he is disappointed Britain is not standing firm to its original demands. A recent poll conducted by Hong Kong University, found that 62 percent of people think that conditions have deteriorated in the territory since the handover, a seven-fold increase since July.
However, most people in this freewheeling enclave, the world's seventh largest trading economy, are most concerned about a stock market collapse and a property sector crash, both a "knock-on" effect from the economic crisis buffeting the Asian region.
Even as Cook was stressing human rights, it's likely that most in Hong Kong were doing what they always do -- keeping a much closer eye on stock prices and the housing market.