Patten's plea to Clinton

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CHRIS PATTEN, the Governor of Hong Kong, who is in conflict with Peking over his plans for elections in the colony, will press President Clinton next month not to tamper with China's status as a favoured trading nation.

Mr Clinton has made clear that he wants to meet Mr Patten. Although no date has been fixed, the Hong Kong Governor is due to visit Washington in the first week of May for what diplomats regard as crucial talks with senior figures in the administration.

During the US election, the Democrats threatened to impose trade sanctions on China in protest at its human rights abuses. Mr Patten will stress to the President that this would hugely damage Hong Kong's economy and intensify Sino-British tension over the democratic reforms planned for 1994 and 1995, two years before the colony is handed back to China.

He will emphasise that for the US to fail to renew - or attach new conditions to - China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status would be against Hong Kong's interests. Mr Clinton is due to say by the end of June if he wants Congress to withhold annual renewal of MFN status. However, while pressing him to urge Congress not to vary trade arrangements with Peking, Mr Patten is expected to seek support for his stance over reforms.

His high-profile visit comes as China is asking the international community to admit it to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and is lobbying hard to secure the Olympic Games in the year 2000 for Peking. The US has a crucial role in both decisions.

Mr Patten reiterates today in the Sunday Express that he is ready for talks with China 'at any time'. The last 'talks about talks' stalled over China's insistence that Hong Kong representatives should no longer be included in the British team for negotiations, and Mr Patten went ahead with publication of his draft proposals.

Senior UK government sources emphatically dismiss reports, widely publicised in Hong Kong, that the Foreign Office is trying to get Mr Patten to modify his commitment to reform. Mr Patten, who is due to hold consultations with both John Major and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, this week, is personally close to both men and enjoys their fullest confidence.

If talks do not reopen, Mr Patten faces a difficult decision over whether to press ahead with putting the proposals through the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco), which might water them down in a way acceptable to China. Legco would prefer to make its own modifications rather than have them imposed by Sino-British talks. On the other hand there are signs of a widespread desire within the Hong Kong community for the talks to resume.