Patten takes path of reform and conflict with China

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNOR of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, decided yesterday to defy China and press ahead with plans to expand democracy in the colony, only three and a half years before Peking takes over. Approval for the move, which could wreck any chance of a smooth transition, was given by the Government and Mr Patten's 'cabinet', the Executive Council.

Sources in Hong Kong confirmed that Mr Patten intends to table part of his constitutional reform plans in the Legislative Council (Legco), the colony's main representative body, probably on 8 or 15 December. He will announce this decision tomorrow, the sources said, during his weekly session with Legco. Although Mr Patten plans to table only the less controversial aspects of his reform Bill, leaving the door open for a resumption of talks with Peking, a senior Chinese official was quoted yesterday as saying any unilateral move would mean negotiations were over.

China agreed to begin negotiations with Britain in April, when Mr Patten was about to table his proposals for debate in Legco, which would extend elected representation withinit. Last weekend, however, the 17th round of talks ended in deadlock in Peking, with the two sides failing for the first time to set a date for a further meeting. Britain said it had made a proposal to continue talking, but only if the divisive issues were discussed.

Lower-level elections, for local and district boards, are due in Hong Kong next autumn and the following spring. Since most of the conflict between Britain and China centres on the autumn 1995 Legco election, the two sides sought to reach agreement on 'simple' matters first, but even that proved impossible.

Britain insisted that some matters, such as the voting age and number of members in each constituency, related to all elections. China wanted to treat Legco separately.

Tomorrow Mr Patten is expected to propose three main reforms: reducing the voting age from 21 to 18, changing the electoral system to one member for each constituency, and laying down that all members of local and district boards should be elected - about a third are appointed at present. Informal polls of Legco members show he should receive majority support for these measures, which would bolster his position with Peking.

The delay of at least a week in beginning the Legco debate, and Mr Patten's decision to hold back on the most controversial elements, may yet allow China to return to the negotiating table.

No amount of talking, however, is likely to soften Peking's determination to ensure it inherits a docile legislature in 1997, or to replace any 'subversives' who win seats.

Although the conflict is likely to stall progress on large projects important to Hong Kong, such as the new airport and an extra container terminal, business circles are calculating that China will seek to avoid economic damage.