Breakthrough on Hong Kong: China makes a tactical retreat to agree to talks as Patten puts electoral reform plans on hold

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AFTER months of insults and threats from Peking, China and Britain yesterday ended a bitter diplomatic stand-off over Hong Kong, announcing that negotiations on the colony's political future would start next week. The breakthrough came after concessions by China over the role Hong Kong officials would play in the talks.

British officials refused to talk of a climbdown by Chinese officials and the official announcement, issued simultaneously by Britain and China, was carefully worded. Chris Patten, the Hong Kong governor, who Peking described recently as a man who would be 'condemned down the ages' for his proposals for reforms ahead of elections next year and in 1995, said the agreement was 'a victory for common sense'.

Mr Patten, who had talks in London with John Major yesterday, said he hoped the two sides could agree on arrangements that would be 'fair and acceptable to the people of Hong Kong'.

Mr Patten will put on hold plans to table the draft electoral reform legislation before Legco, the Legislative Council, for as long as the talks appear to be making progress. Martin Lee, head of the United Democrats, who won a majority of Legco's directly elected seats, welcomed the talks but said the Bill should be introduced to Legco while they were proceeding.

Yesterday's announcement supports speculation that China has decided to abandon its threatening strategy, which appealed to hardliners in the National People's Congress, in favour of a softer line aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the colony's people. However, any change is probably tactical as China remains determined to thwart the implementation of the democratic reform.

British officials have always emphasised that, even if talks were to start, reaching agreement would prove extremely difficult.

The pressure of time is a big factor. It has taken more than two months of on-and-off 'talks about talks' to get the two sides to sit down at the table. Any revised proposals on electoral reform will have to be ready to place before Hong Kong's parliament for a debate and vote by the end of July.

Britain said yesterday that there were no pre-conditions for the talks, due to start in Peking next Thursday. When 'talks about talks' broke down acrimoniously a month ago, the final sticking point was over the status of Hong Kong officials on the British team. China, insisting that the talks could only be between representatives of 'sovereign powers', had wanted the offficials downgraded to 'advisers'. Mr Patten insisted they have equal ranking with British members.

Yesterday's announcement said both sides had agreed that 'government representatives' will hold the talks. It said the British 'representative' will be Sir Robin McLaren, the ambassador to China, while China will put forward Jiang Enzhu, vice-minister for foreign affairs. British officials said Sir Robin would be 'supported' by four people, including two senior Hong Kong government officials, Michael Sze, Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, and his deputy, Peter Lai.

China, which has not named its full line-up, has dropped its demand that these other members be described in the announcement as 'experts and advisers'.

While refusing to talk about a climbdown, Mr Patten hinted at the problem after reading the announcement at the Foreign Office. 'I think that we have from our point of view, in case there were any doubts at all, underlined again and again the point that the talks are between sovereign powers but it is an aspect of our sovereignty that the British government chooses the British team.'

The news about the talks was warmly welcomed by all sides of the political spectrum in Hong Kong. After the 'talks about talks' broke up last month, Mr Patten formally published his draft electoral reform Bill, prompting a barrage of attacks from China which unnerved the Hong Kong public and started to erode support for the governor.

China said Mr Patten had 'shut the door' on talks and Peking threatened repercussions for Sino-British trade relations. It also vowed to scrap any system left behind by Britain when sovereignty reverts to China in 1997.

At the same time, however, talks about talks were quietly reopening in London through the Chinese ambassador which led to yesterday's agreement.

For Britain, the hardest decision may be how to get out of talks if they are going nowhere. Even a starting point for discussion may prove elusive.

Leading article, page 19

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