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Blair and Cook abandon Patten

Drowning their sorrows? The last governor and the heir who will never rule Hong Kong
The Government yesterday publicly distanced itself from Chris Patten's five-year rule in Hong Kong in an eve-of-handover bid to put relations with China on a new and positive footing.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, dramatically refused to back Mr Patten, the outgoing governor and Peking's bogeyman in chief, and took a noticeably more emollient line on the forthcoming deployment of troops and armour in the colony, which Mr Patten had described as "appalling". Mr Cook said the arrival of the Chinese forces was "unnecessary and inappropriate".

And when Tony Blair arrives in Hong Kong tomorrow, he will stress his desire for a "new start" in relations with Peking.

Asked for his verdict on Mr Patten shortly after he arrived in the territory yesterday, Mr Cook said: "Our responsibility is to make sure that the handover goes smoothly, and that that the arrangements actually work for the next 50 years... I don't think this weekend is the time to debate whether the past five years have been spent usefully." When it was put to him that this was hardly a ringing endorsement, he replied: "We are where we are. We must now try to work with the situation we find ourselves in."

He declined to say what Labour might have done differently, but Mr Cook's remarks appear designed to distance the new government from the previous Conservative administration's clashes with China since the Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong was signed in 1984.

The Prime Minister will say that he sees Hong Kong as a "bridge rather than a barrier" to a better relationship between the two countries. Sources close to Mr Blair said he was heartened by the fact that the Chinese had arranged meetings for him with President Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, the Prime Minister, despite the short duration of his stay.

He is said to attach "great importance" to the contacts and see them as evidence of China's desire to improve relations. He too will call for China to adhere to the Joint Declaration but he will also lay emphasis on areas of future co-operation including trade, arms control, the environment and joint responsibilities on the UN Security Council.

Mr Cook said he had stressed to Tung Chee-hwa, who will take over tomorrow night as Chief Executive of Hong Kong, that fresh elections for the territory's legislature should be free and fair, and that public participation should not be restricted.

As soon as it takes control, China will dissolve the assembly elected under Mr Patten's more democratic framework and install a provisional legislature until the elections, which Mr Tung said he hoped to hold before next May.

The Government has also been cautious in its reaction to China's decision to send a large contingent of troops across the border on 1 July. The plans to bring in 4,000 troops with armoured personnel carriers hours after the handover were China's right, said Mr Cook, but he added: "What is important is that China is only responsible for the external defence of Hong Kong. Internal security is the responsibility of the Hong Kong government and its police force. I regret the scale of the deployment, and I don't see the need for armoured personnel carriers."