The heady breath of democratic fresh air

AS GOVERNOR Chris Patten's political reform proposals are thrown increasingly into doubt at the negotiating table in Beijing, disheartened supporters can take some solace in how one of his other pro-democracy initiatives is beginning to bear fruit: appointed legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai is moving towards standing for direct election in 1995.

While Miss Loh insists she has yet to make up her mind - ''so many things are still fluid at the moment'' - the ardently pro-democracy legislator is already talking in the tone of someone eager to face the hustings.

She has had no shortage of encouragement with fellow democrats urging her to take up the challenge.

Some reports even suggested United Democrats vice-chairman Dr Yeung Sum had been deputed to make a formal approach. While that was denied, and the two had a good laugh about it in the Legislative Council tearoom last week, other party members have been lobbying hard.

They have even decided where Miss Loh should stand: Hunghom, a new seat likely to be created under one of Mr Patten's least controversial proposals for 20 smaller geographical constituencies in 1995.

The United Democrats has no strong candidate there, and believes the 10,000 voters in the middle-class Whampoa Gardens complex - making up the heart of the future constituency - would be more tolerant of a Western-educated candidate, who was once accusedof being less Chinese than Sir David Akers-Jones by fellow Beijing adviser David Chu Yu-lin.

Miss Loh professes bemusement that some are keeping a seat warm for her. ''People seem to be offering me suggestions about where to stand before I even decide whether to stand''.

But she is already advanced enough in her thinking to let it be known she wants to stand for direct election, rather than plumping for the less democratic, but easier option of a functional constituency or Election Committee seat.

Miss Loh also says she will not stand in the New Territories. Friends say she should limit herself still further, to Hongkong Island, where the cosmopolitan legislator spends most of her time and feels most at home.

''I not sure she's ever been to Mongkok,'' said one friend. ''She's certainly not used to kicking around public housing estates.'' But with most seats on the south side of the harbour sewn up by senior United Democrats, like Mr Yeung and Martin Lee Chu-ming, Miss Loh, perhaps with one eye on Hunghom, insists she feels at home in parts of Kowloon.

The British-educated business executive also brushes aside suggestions her Cantonese is not good enough to go out on the campaign trail. ''Since I don't read Chinese I will never be able to stand up and read a speech in Chinese, so I just stand up and speak, and I'm not so bad at that.'' BUT the significance of Miss Loh's likely candidacy goes far beyond the quality of her Cantonese.

Already some cynical democrats, who believe Mr Patten is set to scrap his democratic crusade, after the Governor last weekend switched targets and attacked Martin Lee rather than Liberal Party leader Allen Lee Peng-fei in a BBC interview, say Mr Patten's best - and only - contribution to furthering democracy may now turn out to be the appointment of those like Miss Loh to Legco.

That, unlike the political reform package seemingly on the point of being scrapped, is all but irreversible.

Last year's choice of Miss Loh, and fellow democratically-minded appointees Anna Wu Hung-yuk and Roger Luk Koon-hoo, broke with the decades-long practice of using the colonial appointments system solely to bolster the image of Hongkong's conservative elements.

Familiar figures, such as Allen Lee and Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, had built their reputations on the back of British patronage, giving them a platform from which to become household names.

For the first time, the appointments system has worked to the advantage of their opponents because it is Miss Loh's appointment to Legco that now makes her a credible candidate for the next elections.

Beijing, whose local leftist organs sharply attacked the choice of the Patten appointees, will doubtless see her move to stand in 1995 as a further British plot to put its chosen candidates into positions of influence beyond 1997.

But the truth is the use of the appointments system to aid Miss Loh and the democratic camp merely balances its extensive abuse to support business interests in the past.

Miss Loh's candidacy will also make it much harder for conservative appointees, in the confusingly-named Liberal Party, to duck out of their pledge to stand for direct election in 1995, as the prospect of defeat looms near.

That is why her move is a breath of fresh air.

Miss Loh may not be ready to announce her candidacy just yet, but she should as soon as possible.

And Miss Wu and Mr Luk would do well to seriously consider following in her footsteps.