HONG KONG, FEB. 10 -- The Hong Kong government today issued a long-awaited white paper on political reform that calls for only limited movement in the direction of a more democratic system for the British colony before China takes over here in 1997.

The paper proposes for the first time the direct election of 10 members to the 56-member Legislative Council, a consultative body with a majority of appointed members.

But the election is not to be held until 1991, when China is supposed to complete the preparation of a new basic law, or constitution, for Hong Kong.

China insists that any political reforms conform to the basic law, and is believed to oppose any genuine direct elections.

The white paper drew immediate criticism from proponents of a more democratic system for the territory, who have been calling for direct elections this year. They say that Britain promised in 1984 to hold direct elections this year and is now going back on its promise.

The critics argue that the only way to ensure that China keeps its promise to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy and capitalist economic system for 50 years after it assumes sovereignty here is to make the system more democratic and more responsive to the desires of Hong Kong's 5.5 million people.

One argument in favor of holding direct elections sooner rather than later is that it will give Hong Kong citizens more experience in democratic procedures before Beijing takes over from London.

Hong Kong has long been run under an authoritarian system with an all-powerful governor, but the governor is under the control of a democratic system in Britain. The fear is that once China takes over, the territory's chief executive will be responsible only to Beijing and not to the people of Hong Kong.

The issue is of interest to governments and business executives around the world because Hong Kong has become one of the world's leading ports and financial centers. It has also become the main communications center for Southeast Asia.

But independent observers said the white paper issued today will do nothing to enhance confidence in Hong Kong's future or to stem the flow of Hong Kong's citizens who have been applying to emigrate. Canada issued more than 16,000 visas to Hong Kong residents in 1987, an increase of nearly 200 percent over the previous year.

The Hong Kong administration bases its decision not to hold any direct elections until 1991 on a controversial public opinion survey published last year that reported little support for direct elections this year. Other surveys have shown the contrary.

Martin Lee, the leading proponent of direct elections, described the white paper as "a thoroughly bad job."

"It obviously was written with the full consent" of Beijing, Lee said in a telephone interview tonight. "We were led to believe that direct elections would be held this year."

The Hong Kong government gave a copy of the white paper to China last week. A government spokesman said it was "normal practice" to pass on such policy papers to Beijing as a matter of courtesy. The critics charge that the British government is making concessions to Beijing on every major point in order to preserve its good relationship with the Chinese as well as to obtain long-term trade advantages.