KIRKLAND, Wash. (AP) _ McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. and its partners have been granted a license to set up and operate a digital cellular telephone system in Hong Kong, McCaw announced Monday.

Partners in the venture, operating under the name SmartCom Ltd., are McCaw, the largest cellular telephone company in the United States; Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd., a large Hong Kong property owner and developer; ABC Communications, a Hong Kong paging company; and Town Khan, a company owned by China's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.

''We are pleased to be able to participate in Hong Kong and recognize it as one of the most important and fastest-growing telecommunications centers in the world,'' McCaw Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Craig O. McCaw said in a statement. ''We also believe that this will provide McCaw with new opportunities in China and other markets in Southeast Asia.''

Hong Kong, a British colony that is one of the Far East's leading trade, shopping and banking hubs, reverts back to China's control in 1997.

Hong Kong already has three carriers in place serving about 200,000 cellular customers, said Todd Wolfenbarger, director of corporate communications. SmartCom will operate the island's first digital cellular system, scheduled to start up by mid-January, he said.

The system will cost about $120 million to put in place. McCaw's commitment is less than $10 million over the next five years, Wolfenbarger said.