A cabinet committee meeting chaired by John Major yesterday agreed on a short-term strategy for the talks with China, which have gone virtually nowhere since March. At the next round in Peking on 19 and 20 November, it is understood, Britain will demand that agreement should be reached within weeks on all technical aspects of the elections to be held in the colony in 1994 and 1995, leaving negotiators free to concentrate on the matters of principle which divide the two sides.
Hong Kong is due to have three elections before the colony is handed over to China in 1997. Nearly all the controversy with Peking is over the last - the autumn 1995 election of the colony's Legislative Council (Legco) - which will have to vote on any deal reached with China. Britain wants all other issues cleared away so as to focus on disputes over how Legco will be elected and whether its members will be allowed to serve their full term until 1999: the so- called 'through train'.
China, which had refused to discuss the 'through train' before, suddenly came up with ideas at the last negotiating session in Peking. Britain remains unsure whether these were meant to indicate a new willingness to talk, or simply to confuse yesterday's cabinet committee meeting. Even if agreement could be reached, however, the two sides remain bitterly divided over Mr Patten's attempts to broaden the electorate for the 40 Legco seats out of 60 not directly chosen by Hong Kong voters. China wants to keep them in the hands of small groups which are more subject to pressure.
'We are proposing to the Chinese that we move into a more intensive phase straight away to try and find acceptable answers to all the outstanding issues,' the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said after the meeting. 'Time is not unlimited. It is weeks rather than months in which we have to reach a conclusion. If we could reach agreement quickly on a number of uncontroversial matters . . . this would enable the legislative work to begin in Hong Kong.' Asked what would happen if the next round failed to make progress, he said: 'We believe it should be possible quickly to arrange a further round beyond that, indeed as many rounds as it takes.'
Mr Patten told a business conference in London: 'We now have very little time left in which to conclude these talks. We for our part have made major moves in these negotiations already and our room for manoeuvre is now very limited indeed. If we are to reach agreement in time, then both sides are going to have to negotiate a great deal harder.'
If it becomes clear in the next few weeks that agreement cannot not be reached, said Mr Patten, 'then we will have, reluctantly, to discharge our responsibilities . . . for the people of Hong Kong as best we can, in our own way.'
Mr Major said at the conference: 'I do not believe, and nor does the Governor, that an agreement is worth any price, although we will do our best to get one.' Britain was determined to maintain a 'co-operative relationship' with China, but was not prepared to sacrifice its commitment to democracy.
The task of conveying this message in Peking next week will fall to Christopher Hum, a senior Foreign Office diplomat. Sir Robin McLaren, Britain's ambassador to China and chief negotiator, had a back operation yesterday.
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