Broadsides exchanged in row over Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
AFTER a month of 'quiet diplomacy' on political reforms in Hong Kong, Britain and China yesterday exchanged broadsides in public, apparently sinking any hope of compromise in the near future. To loud applause from his audience, the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, used his opening speech to the National People's Congress (NPC) in Peking to accuse Britain of trying to 'create disorder' in Hong Kong.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, told the House of Commons that Britain could not accept attempts by China to downgrade the role of people in Hong Kong in negotiations about the colony's future, the point on which attempts to restart talks broke down last week.

The Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, then published a draft bill to increase democracy in the colony, which China has treated as a provocation.

Mr Hurd sought to play down the dispute, describing Mr Li's remarks as 'nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected'. The fact that the Prime Minister made them on such a high-profile occasion, however, puts China firmly back on the offensive. At one point, he departed from his text to say: 'The British side has created the obstacles, the British government must bear the serious consequences resulting from its actions.'

This appears to rule out any co-operation with the Hong Kong government on issues that straddle the 1997 transfer of sovereignty and on big projects, such as the new airport at Chek Lap Kok, that need China's approval. There is still, for instance, no date set for the next Sino-British Joint Liaison Group meeting, the forum for sorting out the practical aspects of handing Hong Kong back to China.

Mr Li told the NPC delegates that the reversion of sovereignty was China's 'sacred right, and it must not be jeopardised'. Mr Patten's proposals in October about widening the electoral base were 'perfidiously and unilaterally' put forward, were 'designed to create disorder and to impede the smooth transfer of power', and were not about democracy, he added.

For such a senior figure as Mr Li to use such a level of invective will increase fears in the colony about the damage to Sino-British relations over the next few months. The Hong Kong stock market, which last week soared to record highs on assumptions that talks would resume, yesterday fell 315.79 points, or just over 5 per cent, to close at 5,854.61.

Mr Hurd described the failure to re-open talks as 'disappointing', but stressed that Mr Patten's decision to publish the legislation 'does not affect the basis for talks with China, the need for such talks or our wish to hold them'. Introducing the bill for debate in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco) was a separate step, he added, hinting that this could be delayed if China showed any renewed willingness to 'talk about talks'.

A British official, describing the differences with China as 'narrow but deep', said there was little point in seeking fresh contact with Peking until the NPC, China's rubber-stamp parliament, ended its two and a half week session. This implies that the Legco debate on Mr Patten's proposals is unlikely to start before April, although he is under pressure from pro-democracy members of Legco to start the process as soon as possible.

Mr Li's blast, however, would seem to leave little room for a resumption of dialogue. Both sides are now trying to claim the moral high ground in the struggle for Hong Kong opinion - Mr Li said yesterday the Chinese government would 'never barter away principles', while Mr Patten said on Friday that being conciliatory in the hope of restarting talks was very different from abandoning one's principles.