THE headline to a commentary carried by the leading left-wing Chinese-language newspaper Wen Wei Pao encapsulated the mentality of China as well as its sympathisers in the territory over the September District Board elections - ''Face the reality, meet the challenge.'' While the China-controlled media continued to condemn the Government's political reform package and threatened to tear down the three-tier structures, pro-China forces were teaming up for their largest-ever show of strength at the upcoming September District Board elections. Spearheaded by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), pro-China groups are set to form the second largest line-up at the district polls. With the DAB fielding more than 82 candidates and a few dozen more from other pro-Beijing bodies including district associations and rural bodies, the pro-China camp is being seen as the major opponent to the liberal coalition by the United Democrats and Meeting Point. UDHK head Martin Lee Chu-ming has conceded that their strongest challenge will come from the pro-China alignment. The mass turnout of the DAB, now chaired by Tsang Yok-shing, shouldn't come as a surprise. Humiliated by the liberals at the 1991 direct polls, Mr Tsang and his like-minded peer group acknowledged that they needed more hard work to win the hearts and minds of voters in future elections. The day has come. ''Today is the day we have been waiting for since the day we set up the DAB,'' Mr Tsang declared at a mass swearing-in ceremony of its 82 hopefuls last Saturday. The DAB's high-profile campaign was launched as signs were emerging that the enthusiasm of the territory's pro-China forces for winning seats in the political system under British rule has not been dented by the breakdown in Sino-British constitutional talks. Suggestions had been made after the failure of talks that the pro-China camp might boycott the three-tier elections. DAB leaders have swiftly dismissed the idea and reaffirmed their commitment to taking a more active role in the polls. The mass line-up of pro-China forces in the early days of the nomination period showed that they mean what they say. The united front has emerged as Chinese officials and their media supporters have apparently reached common ground on the British-orchestrated elections. Admitting that, like it or not, elections based on the Chris Patten package would be held, the Wen Wei Po commentary asked: ''What should we do? Someone would say: Boycott the election and do not take part. Others are worried that [we] might lose if we hastily participate and fall into Chris Patten's trap. ''Some believe it will not be too late to join later because there will be a second stove after all. ''The above-mentioned mentality seems to have a point, but cannot stand the test of reason. ''People who love China and Hong Kong should still take part fully and face the reality after weighing the pros and cons,'' the commentary, carried in the paper's August 1 edition, concluded. To Beijing, the pros and cons are clear. With the imminent formation of the larger Democratic Party, there is no more room for second thoughts in the scramble for seats. Failure to take part in elections would also undo the efforts made and connections built up by pro-China bodies such as the DAB in recent years. The power balance would only be further tilted in favour of the liberal force. Moreover, the district boards' election method does not necessarily favour any particular political party. The small constituencies will reduce the influence of political parties. Candidates' personal connections to their constituencies might be more important in winning votes. More importantly, as the Wen Wei Po commentary says, ''Even if [we lose] . . . it will serve the purpose of training our troops . . . If we sit idle and fold up our hands and just watch we will find it is too late when we are heading for the real battle after 1997.'' As a senior Xinhua official Zhang Junsheng has admitted, local people should take an active part in elections to prepare for putting the China promise of ''Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong'' into action. Chinese officials have repeatedly cited remarks made by patriarch Deng Xiaoping that the future Special Administrative Region should be largely run by ''patriots,'' or people who ''love China and love Hong Kong.'' But no matter how China defines who are the patriots, anyone who wants to take part in the political structure will have to face the voters. To the pro-China forces, the challenge does not merely come from rival political groupings but society at large. Pro-China leaders have attributed their failure, as well as the liberals' landslide victory in 1991, to the China factor. The votes for liberal candidates in 1991 have largely been interpreted as a vote for activists who stood up against China over the June 4 massacre. A ''pro-China'' label was seen as the kiss of death. Any candidate was doomed if he or she had been branded as ''pro-China.'' With June 4 now five years ago, results of the DB polls - the first of the three-tier elections - will shed light on whether the ''pro-China'' label has remained a liability. Some in pro-China circles believe things might have changed. They are convinced that it is correct to make peace with the motherland and avoid confrontation. Such an approach will have the support of the voters, they believe. Their pro-China image will become an asset in the long-run. However, it is almost certain that the China factor will remain an issue in election campaigning. The challenge for the pro-China camp is to convince the voters that they are not the mouthpiece of Beijing. They have to show their readiness to criticise the mainland for its mistakes and defend the interests of the six million Hong Kongers, even when there is a conflict between Beijing and the territory. Over the past two years or so, the DAB has attempted to build up its independent image, to show that they speak in the interest of the territory. During the same period Beijing has, partly through the more active Xinhua headquarters, stepped up its united front in the territory. This has included the appointment of Hong Kong Affairs Advisers and the District Advisers. Results at the September 18 polls will suggest how far they have succeeded.