A dialogue conducted in Chinese whispers

You say 'autonomy', they say 'case closed'. Teresa Poole in Peking observes Rifkind in action
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The Independent Online
ON THE east side of Tiananmen Square sits the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, an imposing building which has been closed since last summer for "renovation". Revolutionary nostalgia may be on hold, but the museum's forecourt is still on the itinerary of out-of-town Chinese visitors. For it is here that one can pose for photographs against the backdrop of the giant digital clock that is literally counting the seconds to when Hong Kong reverts to China at midnight on 30 June 1997. As of yesterday, there were just 535 days, or a mere 46 million seconds, to go.

A 33-year-old sailor, from Qingdao on China's east coast, clutched his camera: "This clock has always been on my mind since I saw it on Chinese television," he explained. "If some day I stand on the soil of Hong Kong and see how developed it is, I will be happy because Hong Kong is part of China."

His travelling companion, another sailor, agreed. "I wish that this clock could go faster."

These two, unlike almost everyone else I asked, did know that the British Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, had been in Peking last week. But they had no idea how the talks had gone, for China's official media is not usually illuminating about the subtleties of diplomacy. Mr Rifkind may be surprised to learn that he considers China's "one country two systems" policy for the return of Hong Kong "an unparalleled creation in the world", according to Friday's edition of the People's Daily.

The message which British officials had wanted to get across to the Chinese government, however, was the apparent collapse in public morale in Hong Kong. A "haemorrhaging of confidence" over recent months was how one of Mr Rifkind's entourage put it, anxious to spur Peking into constructive dialogue over the host of technical and political issues which remain to be settled.

In Hong Kong, Mr Rifkind had been blunt with local legislators about Britain's lack of leverage over Peking's handling of the transition. "We cannot impose solutions upon them," he told the Legislative Council (Legco), which China plans to disband after 30 June 1997, and refashion according to its own model. "It is no use my suggesting to you or to the people of Hong Kong that the United Kingdom can suddenly produce some formula which will deal with the determined Chinese desire to dismantle institutions," he added.

The best the minister hoped to achieve in Peking was some sense of forward momentum, particularly on confidence-boosting issues such as Hong Kong's future passports, the question of who will have permanent right of abode after June 1997, and the stalled CT9 container terminal port. More ambitiously, he said he would try to persuade mainland leaders to resume contact with the colony's governor, Chris Patten, who was excommunicated by Peking in 1992, after unveiling his political reforms.

For the superstitious in search of bad omens, the three-day Peking trip started with an embarrassing bang, when Mr Rifkind's Chinese-provided car broke down on the way in from the airport. The rest of the visit went rather more smoothly, including the first meeting for some time by a visiting British politician with President Jiang Zemin. By the time the British team departed at midnight on Thursday they seemed satisfied. But the impact of the talks on Hong Kong's destiny remains to be seen.

Reporting on his high-level meetings, Mr Rifkind's buzz-words were "confidence" and "autonomy". After 70 minutes with President Jiang, he announced: "I was pleased to hear him give a repeated emphasis on the importance he attached to autonomy for Hong Kong, their determination to respect that autonomy, and determination to encourage success of our joint efforts."

It is, however, a Chinese definition of autonomy; one in which the elected Legco is scrapped and Peking oversees the choice of a Hong Kong chief executive to succeed Mr Patten. And when Mr Rifkind last week announced "agreement" with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, over right of abode, it was immediately clear that difficult details were still unresolved.

Asked if Mr Rifkind had overstated his case, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said: "I think this is an exchange of views instead of a concrete negotiation." British hopes that Peking will indeed be "flexible", as the spokesman maintained, are yet to be vindicated.

On the CT9 container terminal, China is now committed to endorse any agreement reached by the companies themselves. This follows three years of effective veto by Peking because of the Jardine group's major stake in one of the consortiums; Jardine is considered a political ally of Mr Patten. Yet the confidence-boosting potential of a deal on CT9 may be diluted if, as rumoured, Jardine withdraws from the project in return for stakes in other Hong Kong port terminals. Thus might China's political will be imposed by stealth.

On the big issues, China is intransigent. The planned scrapping of Legco was last week confirmed as a "closed case", and there is little chance that Peking will resume contact with Mr Patten.

Against this bleak background, British officials took heart that the "atmosphere" of the talks was cordial. Channel 4's documentary on human rights abuses in China's orphanages, Return to the Dying Rooms, did not "poison" the visit, as the Chinese embassy in London had threatened. Mr Rifkind raised human rights concerns at all his meetings, but only incurred China's ritual responses.

His visit will be followed by that of the British trade minister, Anthony Nelson, later this month, and by Michael Heseltine in the spring, this time as deputy prime minister. Mr Rifkind also announced that military exchanges between the UK and China will be upgraded. If this represented steady progress, it was at the Great Wall where Mr Rifkind made his greatest strides, as the Scottish hill-climber left most of his entourage gasping in his wake.

Time was also found for the ritual shopping experience, for British dignitaries, of the pearl market - although Mr Rifkind's schedule was so tight that the pearl-sellers had to be summoned to the British embassy.

For sinologists worldwide, Mr Rifkind managed one startling revelation. After his meeting with China's notoriously hardline Prime Minister, Li Peng, he reported: "I was delighted to find that he was a great fan of British ice-cream."