BRITAIN'S chances of widening Hongkong's limited democracy would probably be improved by the early death of Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping, a leading US sinologist said yesterday. Despite Mr Deng's ostensible retirement, no one in the Chinese communist leadership had the political power to modify Hongkong policy as long as the patriarch was alive, said Dr Lowell Dittmer, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. Dr Dittmer said he disagreed with Chinese who felt they were better off the longer Mr Deng lived, arguing that a protracted succession was just as unstable as a power struggle on the mainland. ''I'd say perhaps they should get it over with,'' he told a seminar at the US Consulate-General in Hongkong. ''I think there will be this freeze in making basic decisions until the succession crisis is resolved.'' Acknowledging the delicacy of the issue, Dr Dittmer argued nonetheless that Mr Deng's early death and a prompt leadership succession ''would be best for China and best for Hongkong''. The professor said Mr Deng's political hard line was the only explanation for China's opposition to plans by the Governor, Chris Patten, to widen democracy in the territory, even though a high degree of autonomy in Hongkong would benefit China as it evolved. ''No one can take a decision to take the heat off Hongkong before Deng dies,'' Dr Dittmer said. ''He's a hardliner who says, 'Don't let these people get away with anything'.'' But he said he was optimistic because Beijing was reluctant to hurt Hongkong for fear of slowing its own economic boom. ''The economic strength of Hongkong is the factor that will protect its democracy more than anything else.'' Regardless of the recent tension between London and Beijing over the territory's political future, Dr Dittmer said he subscribed to the ''golden egg'' theory that China considered Hongkong a ''valuable economic asset''. He pointed out that the Chinese leadership was still keen to use Hongkong as an example to lure the ruling Kuomintang in Taiwan into reunification talk. Although the professor stressed he had no ''crystal ball'' to predict the future leadership in China, he said vice-premier Zhu Rongji was likely to take over, although President Jiang Zemin was also a serious candidate.