Patten admits China's hold on Hong Kong

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In comments likely to be seen as a watershed, marking the demise of British influence in Hong Kong, the Governor, Chris Patten, has admitted that China already has greater influence there than Britain, more than two years before it formally assumes control. He told a meeting of foreign correspondents that as the 1997 handover date approaches individuals and businesses are not looking primarily to Britain but to China as the future sovereign, to provide reassurances.

Before now, Mr Patten and his predecessor, Lord Wilson, were sensitive to suggestions that they were running a "lame duck" administration. The official line was that the Hong Kong government remained fully in charge, but Mr Patten has now broken the taboo.

"There comes a point, and I suspect it's come, when my reassurances about the business atmosphere or related matters after 1997 are rather less important to investors and businessmen than what Chinese officials say," Mr Patten said.

Mr Patten, who said he hoped China's decision-making process on Hong Kong would not be affected in the event of the death of Deng Xiaoping, the country's senior leader, provided a list of pending issues which required China's urgent endorsement before progress could be made.

Among them, he highlighted the position of civil servants. Recent statements by Chinese officials have fuelled an atmosphere of unease, jockeying for position and talk about resignation and emigration.

In theory the colony's 185,000 civil servants have nothing to fear. Both the outgoing British administration and the incoming Chinese administration have assured them that their jobs are secure and they will not be affected by the transfer of power. "I want to tell them that they may stay with their hearts at ease," Lu Ping, China's most senior official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, said in 1991.

Recently his tone has been less conciliatory. He has demanded the Hong Kong government give Peking information about civil servants. Taking little trouble to conceal his irritation, he warned that China "will not be polite" in retaliating if this is not done.