Hong Kong will not break its existing cultural, economic or transportation ties with Taiwan once China assumes control over the British colony in 1997, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said today in the Chinese capital of Peking.
His comments were the latest shot in a salvo of official statements from both Peking and Taipei over the future of Taiwanese interests here. Behind the statements lies the more important question of possible direct relations between the two sometime in the future, an issue that has assumed new urgency since the signing last month of the Sino-British pact resolving Hong Kong's future from 1997.
The Communist official's announcement comes shortly after the disclosure in the latest issue of the Chinese Comunist Party magazine, Red Flag, that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has promised "even more lenient" terms for Taiwan than those obtained for Hong Kong.
According to Red Flag, Deng also said in a speech to top Communist Party officials that if a peaceful means to the problems of Taiwan's reunification with the mainland is to be found, the solution must be acceptable to all parties.
Following the initialing of the Sino-British agreement over the future of Hong Kong in Peking last September, the Communist Chinese launched an intensive drive to draw Taiwan into talks over reunification.
That campaign was signaled on the eve of China's National Day on Oct. 1, when Premier Zhao Ziyang declared that Peking was ready to start negotiations on terms acceptable to both sides.
The next day, Deng reiterated the government's hope for reunification with Taiwan, and made it clear that pro-Nationalist organizations would be free to stay on in Hong Kong after 1997, if they "refrained from making trouble."
Because of its situation as a center for right-wing interest groups and newspapers facing an uncertain future under Peking's rule, Hong Kong has taken center stage in China's efforts to win over anticommunist Chinese, and thus make a good impression on neighboring Taiwan.
For more than a year, communist interests here have moved gradually to strengthen ties with left-wing noncommunists and political moderates to form what is known on the mainland as "a united front."
A statement citing specifics on the future of Hong Kong's links with Taiwan came in October from the vice director of the local branch of the New China News Agency, Li Chuwen.
"Present air and sea communications between Hong Kong and Taiwan will be kept open," he said. He added that individuals and organizations would be able to continue their normal business and careers after 1997 and would be "free to hold political convictions different or opposite to those of the mainland."
"The only thing required of them is not to engage in activities of social disturbance or fratricidal feuds, nor attempt to create 'two Chinas,' " Li said. His comments were given special weight in view of the agency's traditional role in Hong Kong as a de facto diplomatic presence.
The extent of China's concern about Taiwanese sensitivities here was underscored in November when Hong Kong's second oldest newspaper, the pro-Taiwan Kung Sheung daily, closed down, ostensibly because of financial problems.
The leading communist official here, New China News Agency Director Xu Jiatun, said immediately that China hoped newspapers in Hong Kong would continue to be published, regardless of their political affiliations.
Chinese officials indicated their concern that the Kung Sheung's demise would sour Peking's promotion of coexistence with Taiwan under Deng's "one country-two systems" concept.
Taiwan's counteroffensive has included two press conferences with Communist defectors to the island republic, and a reminder that, in their view, the recent Sino-British pact over Hong Kong is invalid.
Their own propaganda campaign has gained momentum during the past few weeks, but has included hints that Taiwan will adopt a more pragmatic approach to the Hong Kong question than could have been predicted a few years ago.
A Cathay Pacific Airways manager based in Taipei, Linus Cheng, warned that air links between Hong Kong and Taiwan might be severed in 1997 if Taiwanese government policies remained unchanged. Taiwan's national carrier, China Airlines, said it would serve Hong Kong until 1997, but has not said what would happen after that.
Last month, Taiwan's legislative body said it would simplify immigration formalities for Hong Kong residents, and build up an international financial center to help Hong Kong businessmen relocate in Taiwan. Investment restrictions for Hong Kong businessmen will be relaxed, and Taiwan intends to open a second government office in Hong Kong to process emigration applications.
In the last week of December, Taiwan's economic planning and development council suggested in a report to the Nationalist government that Taipei find another trading center in Southeast Asia to replace Hong Kong, Taiwan's third largest trading partner.
In 1983, two-way trade between Hong Kong and Taiwan totaled $2.6 billion. At the same time, the council suggested a way of retaining some trade ties with Hong Kong by replacing official Taiwanese trade bodies here with British- or U.S.-registered companies to be run by pro-Taiwanese Chinese. The council also proposed continuing air and shipping links with Hong Kong after 1997, arguing that economic ties with Hong Kong outweighed political considerations.