Britain's Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind has made it clear he expects China to display full tolerance towards what it might see as political dissent in post-handover Hong Kong - and warned that the consequences of intolerance would extend far beyond the individuals concerned. Any breach of the Joint Declaration by China would mean 'its own reputation would suffer very severely', he said. Mr Rifkind praised the territory's democratically elected leaders in the existing Legco, despite having sometimes clashed with them in the past. He described them as 'very mature, astute political animals'. In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Morning Post, one year ahead of the handover, Mr Rifkind said: 'They are very impressive people in their own territory and I am sure they will be able to exercise their own mature judgment as to how they should carry out their responsibilities over the next year. 'I have no doubt they will do it with the integrity and the courage for which they are well known.' The Foreign Secretary insisted it would be very damaging to confidence in Hong Kong if China did not display tolerance towards what it might construe as dissent. 'It would have consequences far beyond the individuals directly affected and I am sure the Chinese will not wish to risk such an outcome,' he said. Speaking in London, Mr Rifkind insisted the Chinese Government was 'committed to respecting and preserving the way of life of the people of Hong Kong'. 'That is a free way of life. It involves the basic principles of a free society.' He said that applied to political leaders as well as to the population as a whole and the British Government believed the territory's existing political leaders should continue to be able to carry out a public role after 1997. 'I think it is in China's interest to take into account, into respect, those political leaders who clearly have the support of the people,' he said. Asked what Britain would do if China made it hard for existing democrats in the SAR, Mr Rifkind insisted the Joint Declaration envisaged all the people of Hong Kong being able to continue in the territory, enjoying a free way of life. 'Any breach of that would not only be a matter of concern for Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. I believe it would be of great concern to the international community as a whole,' he said. 'I believe there is great interest throughout the world in Hong Kong. The United States, France, Germany and many other countries will be joining Britain and the people of Hong Kong in watching carefully what happens after June 1997. 'The United States, for example, has made clear that it attaches very great importance to the full respect for the way of life and the rights of the people of Hong Kong. I am sure that is also the position of many other countries, in Asia, as well as in Europe. Therefore I believe that China's own reputation would suffer very severely. 'But I emphasise that I do not see this as a probable scenario. I believe that China's own interests point towards a successful and smooth transition for Hong Kong and that itself can only be achieved by a respect for the treaty and the obligations that have been entered into,' the Foreign Secretary said. Mr Rifkind made clear that there had been no change in the British view on the Provisional Legco. He said the current Legco was not only legitimate but represented the wishes of the people of the territory. 'If the Chinese Government takes a different view, then I believe that they are jeopardising that successful transition,' he said. Any other arrangements the Chinese Government put forward would have to be judged by the people of Hong Kong by the extent to which they met 'normal democratic principles'. If they met such democratic principles, Legco would remain after the handover. Keeping the existing Legco remained the only sensible way of resolving the matter, he said. Mr Rifkind said there was inevitably a threat to media freedom because China had such a different social and political system. 'There may be a degree of incomprehension as to what makes a free society tick. 'I believe the Chinese Government are sensitive to that concern,' he said. The fact that Beijing had changed its course over loyalty tests for civil servants was an example of that sensitivity. He and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen resolved that issue during their April talks at the Hague. 'I think that was an extremely good example of how the dialogue between the British and Chinese governments, often conducted in a quiet but thoughtful way, can help deal with some of the unexpected problems that occasionally arise,' he said. The British Government was happy that some Chinese statements had been clarified. 'There are still some outstanding causes of concern but in a number of areas, issues which seemed at one stage as being potentially serious problems have been satisfactorily resolved.' Mr Rifkind said it was crucial that whoever was appointed as chief executive should be someone who commanded the confidence of the civil service. 'If that person does command that confidence then the problems of transition will be infinitely easier,' he said. The Foreign Secretary refused to give his opinions on what might happen if a Labour Government was in power at the time of the handover but he stressed that the existing bipartisan approach had been helpful to Hong Kong. He believed Britain's strategy had been 'absolutely right' and he praised Governor Chris Patten, saying his leadership and reforms had been right and proper. 'I know they have been controversial but I believe the alternative would have been a disservice to Hong Kong and I think that history will come to its own conclusion,' he said. During Britain's stewardship of the territory over the past 100 years one of the great wonders of the world had emerged, Mr Rifkind said. But the country still had one unfulfilled obligation, which he hoped would be met by next June, and that was to ensure that the transition and the handover 'is the best that can possibly be achieved in the circumstances'. He insisted Britain's interest in the territory would not cease in June next year. 'Of course the nature of our interest will change, but it will still be a massive interest, partly because of our sense of moral obligation to continue to do whatever we can to help the quality of life and the free way of life of the people of Hong Kong, and partly also because the United Kingdom will continue to have major economic and political interest in the success of Hong Kong.' That would continue for very many generations to come, he said.