Chinese plot to make Patten eat his words

FROM STEPHEN VINES

in Hong Kong

As Lu Ping, China's most senior official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, makes a rare visit to the colony, the subject of his mealtimes has become the latest cause for conflict in deteriorating relations between China and Britain. The Governor, Chris Patten, would like to host a lunch for Mr Lu. But that is out of the question, as Mr Lu will not talk to the man he once described as a criminal.

The Governor's number two, Anson Chan, has not been described as a criminal and is not seen as holding responsibility for the timid political reforms that sparked China's fury. She, therefore, can have lunch with Mr Lu, but must be put in her place for not distancing herself from Mr Patten. Therefore, any meal with Mrs Chan will need to be undertaken in China.

The dispute seems farcical, but it is a farce with a serious angle. China wants to isolate Mr Patten and make it clear to the Hong Kong public and Mr Patten's subordinates that power has passed already to the Chinese. But Mr Patten refuses to preside over a lame duck government and he will not allow Chinese officials to go over his head and communicate directly with his subordinates, unless they do so on his terms.

So the luncheon deadlock rumbles on. Writing in a local paper on the eve of Mr Lu's visit, Mr Patten stated: "It makes sense for men and women to sit down together and talk things through." However, it is clear that he has little expectation of meeting Mr Lu, or any other senior Chinese official. An agreement signed by the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, and John Major in 1991 stipulated that Mr Patten and Mr Lu should meet regularly. They have met only once.

Mr Lu, Director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, is believed to have sought permission to meet Mr Patten last year. This was vetoed by Chinese leaders, who decided the Governor should languish in isolation.

Instead, Mr Lu is holding a series of meetings with civil service staff associations, for the first time including expatriate staff associations. By doing this, he is making it clear that civil servants can make direct contact with China as long as the Governor is not involved.

Commenting on the controversy that has been generated by Mr Lu's visit, the Chinese language Hong Kong Economic Journal said it was becoming clear that only officials who agreed fully with Peking's views would have a future in the post-1997 government.

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