HONG KONG -- A political debate over a Chinese nuclear power plant about to be constructed just 42 miles from Hong Kong's central business district has acquired new urgency.
Peking is about to sign contracts to purchase two French nuclear reactors. Documents leaked to a local newspaper disclosed that senior Hong Kong officials have deep doubts about the project, despite their public assurances about the safety of the French-designed plant.
In the past week, Hong Kong legislators returned from fact-finding missions to nuclear facilities in Europe, Japan and United States confessing they have little hope of swaying China's plans for the 1,800-megawatt plant at Daya Bay.
The main anti-nuclear faction drew up its strategy for a visit this week to Peking, where it will deliver a petition signed by more than 1 million of the colony's 5.5 million residents urging the communist superpower to abandon the project.
Hong Kong legislators visited nuclear sites in France, Austria, the United States and Japan in response to mounting disquiet in the island colony since the April 26 Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
'The more the public is educated, the more acceptable will be nuclear power,' said legislative councillor Maria Tam, who led the European delegation.
But critics were outraged when the councillors said their report would not be ready for six weeks -- a full three weeks after Peking is scheduled to sign a contract for the two 900-megawatt French-built reactors.
'There now appears to be some concerted effort to persuade us into accepting the inevitability of Daya Bay,' said an editorial in the Hong Kong Standard. 'But unlike Russians, Americans and Europeans living in the shadow of nuclear power plants, we have nowhere to run to safety.'
One prominent academic labeled the million-signature petition 'fashionable' and 'unscientific' and suggested the public was being manipulated because of Hong Kong's scheduled return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
'Some people want to enlarge the gap of the mutual distrust between the Chinese government and Hong Kong people,' said senior university lecturer Sit Fung-suen, 'and that is the main motivation for them to join the anti-nuclear plant movement.'
The anti-Daya Bay factions say the petition reflects a genuine groundswell of opinion against the plant.
'The campaign will inevitably involve politics a little bit because it concerns China and the sensitive issues of our time,' said the Rev. Fung Chi-wood, who will take the petition to Peking this week.
Curiously, Fung and others have found the Peking government is sometimes more willing to listen to their concerns than the authorities in Hong Kong.
'China will earn confidence and applause from Hong Kong people if it gives up the project,' Fung said. 'What is more important than the mutual respect between the people and government?'
The Hong Kong government officially has been unflinching, saying it cannot influence events in another country, even though it is a financial guarantor of the plant and will receive 70 percent of its energy output.
But a local newspaper reported classified documents revealed deep concerns within the government about the safety of the plant, which will be operated by inexperienced Chinese engineers.
'We have ... made a lot of reassuring statements but as far as I am aware, nobody in government has seen in writing the facts upon which these statements were based,' said one confidential memo attributed to the colony's director of electrical and mechanical engineering.
While the technical arguments have left many Hong Kong residents bewildered, the debate has been a novel experiment in political activism for many in the usually apathetic colony.
'The masses ... need not have a deep understanding on the technological aspect of nuclear power generation, nor are they able to have a deep understanding in this area,' commented one Chinese-language newspaper.
'But they do have the full right to air their views on whether or not they are willing to run the risk.'
History lecturer Dr. Kwok Siu-tong agreed, calling it an opportunity for Hong Kong residents to practise politics and to learn how to be Chinese citizens.
'Let people speak up,' Kwok appealed.