Accord on HK bases strikes hopeful note

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The Independent Online
CHINA raised hopes yesterday that it could co-operate with Britain over non-political questions in Hong Kong, signing an important agreement on military bases only hours after the colony's legislature narrowly passed the controversial reform proposals of Governor Chris Patten.

The deal over how many defence sites will be inherited by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is the first substantial agreement between Britain and China since the row over political reform erupted nearly two years ago. The agreement, described as a 'hopeful omen for the future' by the British team leader, Hugh Davies, encouraged cautious optimism that negotiations on practical and economic matters may be back on track now that the debate over electoral reform is over.

A mainland Chinese official yesterday repeated that Peking intends to disband Hong Kong's legislature in 1997 and hold new elections, but he also spoke of possible co-operation in other, non- constitutional areas. Mr Patten, chastened by the near-defeat of his plans to make the 1995 Legislative Council election more democratic, described it as 'a chapter which is closed'. With yesterday marking exactly three years before China reclaims Hong Kong, he signalled that his governorship was moving into a new, more conciliatory phase, saying: 'I hope that we can now look for as much common ground as possible.'

Hope of a more harmonious relationship was tempered by a reminder of the possible costs of securing such common ground. It was revealed in the local press that the Director of Education, Dominic Wong, had ordered the deletion of an account of the Tiananmen Square shootings in June 1989 from a new school history textbook. Mr Wong said the decision was not political: events that took place within the past 20 years should not be covered in textbooks because they were too recent for objective analysis.

Yesterday the Hong Kong Journalists' Association and the anti-censorship group, Article 19, also warned that press freedom was under threat, from self-censorship in the run-up to 1997 and from possible interference by the mainland thereafter.

The defence lands agreement - after seven years of wrangling - is one of the most sensitive and complicated deals to be struck by the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group (JLG) because it concerns the presence of PLA soldiers in Hong Kong after 1997. Fourteen military sites will be handed over to the Chinese, but 25 other sites used by the British garrison will be transferred to the Hong Kong government for civilian development, such as housing. In return, Hong Kong will spend HKdollars 4bn ( pounds 333m) building military facilities for the PLA, including a new naval base.

Mr Davies said negotiations had been 'very tough' and the agreement was 'the best we could get'. The picture emerging from officials is that it still takes an inescapable deadline before Peking will sign agreements - in this case, the need for the expenditure to be approved before the summer legislative recess.

The next test will be agreement on financing Hong Kong's new airport.