Britain has been widely criticized for bowing to Chinese pressure in recent years, but now it seems to have put its foot down in what has turned into a battle over who will actually run this territory in the next six years. The Hong Kong government's plan for a $16.2-billion airport and port complex was conceived two years ago as a brave effort to restore optimism in this confidence-shaken territory. But the project has been crippled by objections from Beijing, threatening the chances that it will even get off the ground before 1997, when the British turn over Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
While Beijing agrees that a new airport is necessary, it wants much greater participation in the planning.
Many people here worry that China is using the airport to gain a veto power over all decisions made by the Hong Kong government.
"The issue is not over the airport," said T. L. Tsim, a fellow of Shaw College at Chinese University in Hong Kong. "The Chinese are using it to get political control. They want it because they've got to control the place, because within China the dissident movement is snuffed out. For all practical purposes it's over, but it is alive and well in Hong Kong."
Some legislators and political analysts say there is a chance that the airport will not be built. The collapse of the project, they add, would suggest that the next six years will be tumultuous.
Paradoxically, the British authorities who run Hong Kong have been widely criticized for caving in to Beijing on human rights issues in the territory, but they have dug in their heels on the airport issue.
Now some people complain that the authorities should be more conciliatory with Beijing, but others argue that if Hong Kong yields to China on this matter it will have ceded control on everything.
"This is a big fight at the moment and it's Hong Kong's moment of truth in as much as if Hong Kong gives in to it, it's a de facto takeover," said George L. Hicks, a writer and businessman who lives in Hong Kong. "I don't see how Britain could appease China on this one and be left in Hong Kong. I believe the British will never last until 1997."
Beijing has said it wants to be consulted on all aspects of the airport because the project affects the territory after 1997. But more important, it has demanded a say in all matters "straddling" 1997, which it seems to take as meaning a virtual veto power on any project in the coming years.
The British have tentatively agreed to consult China on the airport project and to allow China a seat on the government authority that would oversee it. But China so far has balked, saying consultation is not sufficient.
"China says it isn't asking for a veto, but if the two sides can't agree on something, nothing will go ahead, and that's effectively a veto, isn't it?" said Martin C.M. Lee, a prominent legislator here. "This would render the Hong Kong government into a puppet government. It would no longer be a lame-duck government, but a puppet government and the strings would be pulled in Beijing."
The dispute suggests an increasingly interventionist policy by China toward Hong Kong's affairs.