China baffles Britain over Hong Kong talks: Hints of compromise by Peking designed to sow confusion

A LAST-MINUTE hint of concessions by China is likely to prevent Britain reaching a final decision today on whether it is worth continuing to negotiate with Peking over the political future of Hong Kong.

The colony's Governor, Chris Patten, and Britain's chief negotiator with Peking, Sir Robin McLaren, will meet John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, at Downing Street today for a formal review of talks that have gone through 15 largely fruitless rounds since March. British sources said after the most recent round, held in Peking late last month, that unless there were 'major concessions' by the Chinese at the next session, to be held on 19 and 20 November, it would be the last. Mr Patten would put his democracy proposals to the colony's legislature without further consultation.

Today's meeting was expected to give the go-ahead for this course, short of a breakthrough next week, but once again China appears to be trying to throw the British side into confusion by softening its stance at the eleventh hour. Peking agreed to start talking only in March when Mr Patten was on the point of tabling his plans for discussion by the Legislative Council (Legco).

It has emerged that in the past few days Chinese officials have suggested to Sir Robin, Britain's ambassador in Peking, that they might accept some of Mr Patten's proposals, such as reducing the voting age from 21 to 18. The main effect would be to make an agreement seem possible on next year's municipal elections, which matter less to China than the 1995 Legco poll. Although the officials outlined one or two possible concessions on the latter, they showed little willingness to compromise on the main issues.

The approach to Sir Robin seems carefully calibrated to keep the talks going without sacrificing anything Peking considers vital, but the desire in Hong Kong for an agreement is such that Britain has little option but to see whether the Chinese follow up their hints next week. 'It is essential that China does something in the next round of talks,' one source said yesterday, but he added: 'We have got a bit more time if the Chinese show they are serious.'

The Downing Street meeting is expected to consider how the talks would be broken off, if such a decision were to be made, and what the political and economic consequences might be. The main problem, however, is likely to be deciding Britain's bottom line for continuing negotiations. Even if they are prolonged, the British side stresses that little time remains before the administrative and legislative process for the 1995 Legco elections must be set in motion.

'The real argument is not about democracy but about control of Legco,' said the British source. While China might accept Mr Patten's arrangements for the 20 legislative seats directly elected by Hong Kong voters, who gave overwhelming support last time to liberals, it wants to ensure that the other 40 are chosen by small, easily manipulated groups. The Governor's plans to expand the number of voters for these seats, although considerably watered down during six months of negotiations, remain anathema to Peking.

Even if agreement can be reached on this, the more difficult question will remain the 'through train' - a guarantee that China, which takes control of Hong Kong in 1997, will allow Legco members elected in 1995 to complete their four-year terms. Peking has named some liberals elected to Legco last time as unacceptable, saying only 'patriots' will be allowed to keep their seats. Britain insists China should spell out objective criteria before the election. 'It is totally possible that we could sort out everything else, only for the talks to break down on this,' said the source.