Britain and China clinch deal to ease handover of colony

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

Britain and China yesterday reached a cordial agreement on new measures to smooth the transfer of power in Hong Kong but the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, remained insistent that the colony's elected legislature would be abolished.

The Foreign Minister, the first senior Chinese visitor to London for three years, was speaking during a day of talks with the Prime Minister, John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind.

British officials were keen to stress the achievement of two objectives which should ease the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. The two sides agreed to establish formal contacts between civil servants in the Hong Kong government and Chinese officials, allowing heads of department to liaise on practical issues before the transition. They also decided that a preparatory committee should negotiate the details of the ceremonial and protocol aspects of the arrangements on 30 June 1997.

Both measures represented welcome progress, from the British point of view, after a long period of frigid relations characterised by firm statements in support of democracy from the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, which drew reproof from the Chinese. "These new measures are important practical steps which embed the Hong Kong government ever more deeply in the transition and should give reassurance to the people of Hong Kong," a British official said.

But there was no discussion of the inflexible Chinese position that there can be no future for the elected Legislative Council which lies at the heart of Mr Patten's democratic reforms. In elections held on 17 September, pro-democracy politicians swept to victory over candidates backed by Peking.

Britain has in the past urged China to consider the fact that the council's existence enhanced international confidence in the stability and prosperity of the colony. However, Mr Qian made it clear before arriving in London that China would not tolerate its continued role. The chief objection by Peking to the council is that it was elected under rules that were drawn up without Chinese consent. Speaking at the Foreign Office yesterday, Mr Qian dismissed the Legislative Council as "a question already discussed".

British officials took comfort from the fact that Mr Qian's visit took place at all. China was so incensed by the Patten reforms that it had put a freeze on high-level contacts with Britain. That in turn threatened British interests in the enormous and rapidly developing market of modern China.

The British and Hong Kong governments are now addressing China with two separate, if not necessarily discordant, voices. The Hong Kong government has taken up the cause of democratic institutions and the rule of law in the colony, which will continue to irritate the Chinese. The Foreign Office in London, however, will concentrate on developing trade ties and fostering relations between Britain and China.