China wary as HK waits for Patten

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SIR JOHN COLES, the Foreign Office Deputy Under-Secretary responsible for Asia, arrived here yesterday in an effort to speed up talks with China on the funding of Hong Kong's new airport. The Chinese, however, are likely to hold up approval until after the new governor, Chris Patten, takes office a week from today.

The HKdollars 175.3bn ( pounds 12.3bn) airport project is Peking's main bargaining counter as it waits to see what the appointment of a politician as governor of Hong Kong betokens. Suspecting that Mr Patten may be more inclined towards democracy and public debate than the Foreign Office mandarins who preceded him, the Chinese government has issued a stream of warnings, both officially and in sympathetic newspapers in Hong Kong, of the risk to relations.

Yesterday, five years to the day before the Chinese takeover, the pro-Peking monthly Bauhinia said Mr Patten's appointment was 'nothing to be optimistic about' at a time when British officials have suggested that China could agree to allow more members of the territory's legislative council (Legco) to be directly elected.

Only 18 of Legco's 60 members have been chosen in this way, a number due to rise to no more than 20 under the Basic Law governing the transition.

'The historical contribution of the last governor of Hong Kong must be the strengthening of co- operation with China to solve problems in the transition period properly . . . definitely not other things,' said the magazine.

'The Chinese are particularly unsettled and uneasy as Mr Patten's arrival approaches,' said a British official. Peking had seized upon the new governor's pledge to uphold the 'freedom, prosperity and stability' of Hong Kong. The fact that the Prime Minister, John Major, had received Martin Lee, an outspoken critic of Peking and the leader of the United Democrats of Hong Kong (UDHK), which holds 16 of the 18 directly elected seats on Legco, was seen as a sign of special treatment.

Speculation centres on whether Mr Patten might appoint Mr Lee to the Executive Council (Exco), the Hong Kong body with real power - something against which Peking has warned. The outgoing Governor, Lord Wilson, refused to appoint UDHK representatives because they would not undertake to keep Exco deliberations secret, arguing that this might implicate them in decisions with which they disagreed.

Another point of speculation is whether the new governor, with his political connections, will bypass the Foreign Office, whose Hong Kong department is responsible for relations between the two governments. However, a Foreign Office source quoted Mr Patten as saying he wanted to work within the existing system.