Clinton warns Chinese on Hong Kong liberties


THE US has warned China that the takeover of Hong Kong this summer should not undermine political and economic freedoms in the former British colony. Such a development would damage US-China relations and could affect arrangements for a summit meeting later this year in Washington between President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin.

The warning came following high-level meetings here by the leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, Mr Martin Lee, with Mr Clinton, the Vice-President, Mr Al Gore, and the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright. She has also told Mr Lee that she will accept the joint British-China invitation to attend the handover ceremony in July.

Mr Lee's visit to Washington appears to have irritated the Chinese authorities. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Shen Guofang, said Mr Lee was "acting against the interests of the Chinese people". He said that what happened in Hong Kong was China's "internal affair" and that foreign countries should refrain from "indiscreet remarks".

But Mr Clinton made it clear following his meeting with Mr Lee that the fate of Hong Kong is not just an "internal affair". He called on the Chinese leaders to "live up to their agreement" to protect Hong Kong's economic, political and civil liberties.

Mr Clinton said: "The United States has to make it clear that Hong Kong is important to us - the people of Hong Kong are important."

Asked what the US would do if China cracks down on Hong Kong, he said that was a hypothetical question. He added: "We believe it's an important matter and we expect that they will live up to their agreement. And it's our policy, strong policy, that they should.

The White House spokesman, Mr Mike McCurry, said "there would be consequences for any erosion of the freedoms and liberties that are currently enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong." But he refused to spell out what these consequences would be.

The high-level meetings of Mr Lee with the US administration follows Republican criticism of Mr Gore's failure to visit Hong Kong during his recent visit to China. The following week, the Speaker, Mr Newt Gingrich, included Hong Kong in his visit to China and warned Beijing not to renege on its agreement with Britain on safeguarding political and economic, freedoms.

The handover of Hong Kong will take place around the time that the US Congress will be having its annual debate on whether to renew "most-favoured nation" trading status with China. Mr Lee urged Mr Clinton to make no change as Hong Kong would be "badly hurt" if mainland China were to be isolated economically.

Mr Lee's visit appears to have led to the postponement of the planned visit here of the Chinese-appointed chief executive for Hong Kong, Mr Tung Cheehwa.

. An advance party of the Chinese army takes up position in Hong Kong today against the backdrop of the raging quarrel on aspects of the territory's return to China.

It will arrive in the colony on Queen Elizabeth II's birthday to prepare the garrison for the People's Liberation Army troops which will march in on July 1st, when Britain bows out after over 150 years of rule.