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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - Commercial Training

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The business development manage...

The Richmond Fellowship Scotland: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent