Hong Kong handover: Democrats' leader left out in the cold

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Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, has asked for a meeting. Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, has asked for a meeting. But Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, does not appear to have arranged to meet Hong Kong's most prominent democratic politician, the man most likely to be put behind bars if China gets tough.

Yesterday Martin Lee's office said they had not heard from Mr Cook, who flies to Hong Kong tomorrow. Mr Lee, chairman of Hong Kong's largest party, the Democrats, refused to comment, though he is known to be disappointed by the apparent lack of interest. Yesterday Mr Cook's officials said they expected a meeting but Mr Lee's office said none had been arranged.

Four days before the handover, the letter may still be in the post. A full-blown snub would be almost unthinkable; some kind of meeting will take place. But some in Hong Kong fear that, despite the new ethical foreign policy, democratic troublemakers are as little loved in the new Foreign Office as they were in the old. Chris Patten, Governor from 1992, beat the drum on the democrats' behalf during his five years in office. But the support from his colleagues in London was not always what he would have wished for, as he makes clear in his farewell remarks opposite.

He was scathing, too, about Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader, whom he met yesterday. Mr Lee, who talks of "Asian values" and "Confucian values" in defence of his leadership style, this week attacked the democratic reforms in Hong Kong, saying they were a "belated and misconceived effort". Mr Patten replied in kind, saying to The Independent: "Why do we assume that Lee Kuan Yew is the embodiment of Asian values, rather than [Burmese opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi or Martin Lee? He's an eloquent advocate of authoritarian government. They're not necessarily Asian, certainly not Confucian values."

The diplomatic minuets continue, as the countdown to the handover continues. Tony Blairis to meet the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, in an encounter expected to last an hour, shortly before the handover on Monday night. After all the friction of recent months over the handover ceremony, there is now talk of possible visits by the two leaders to London and Peking.

The US said Richard Boucher, its new consul-general, will attend the controversial swearing-in of the Peking-approved legislature, which Ms Albright and Mr Blair had already said they will boycott. Britain followed suit, saying Francis Cornish, now trade commissioner and soon to be its senior diplomat in the territory, will represent Britain at the swearing- in.

A Democratic spokesman said: "Either it's OK to wipe out democratic institutions [in other words, Hong Kong's existing Legislative Council] or it's not. There's no middle road." But the US said Mr Boucher had to attend because he would have to work "for better or worse" with the new legislature. The Foreign Office insisted Britain still "adamantly opposed" the new legislature.

Among young Hong Kongers, there is little of the excitement at reunification with the motherland which Peking thinks all Hong Kongers should display. A survey of under-30s revealed that 40 per cent have "mild or no special feelings" about the handover. Forty per cent thought that the political environment would "get worse", after the handover.

Workers who built the Hong Kong Convention Centre extension, where Prince Charles is to hand back Hong Kong to China's President Jiang Zemin on Monday, complained yesterday they had not been paid and threatened to picket the historic ceremony.

About 40 labourers who worked on the centre gathered at the site to demand back pay.