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Clinton keeps Patten guessing

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton yesterday gave warm endorsement to the democracy proposals of Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, but would not commit himself to what Mr Patten was seeking: the unconditional renewal of China's trading privileges in the US.

China's 'most favoured nation' (MFN) trading status is seen as vital to Hong Kong's economic health. Mr Patten is in Washington to tell the President, his administration and Congress that failure to renew such status for another year by the deadline on 3 June would cost the colony 70,000 jobs and jeopardise dollars 7bn ( pounds 4.4bn) of American investment in Hong Kong. But as the two men waited to begin their meeting in the Oval Office, Mr Clinton said it was not possible to say what his position would be next month 'because it's an evolving situation'.

The President is under strong pressure from Congress and human rights lobbyists to take a tougher line with Peking than his predecessor, George Bush, did. Yesterday he said that while there had been 'some encouraging moves' in China recently, 'I still think more needs to be done'. The US had no desire to isolate the Chinese; the country's economic success would be good for the world, as long it was accompanied by responsible behaviour, respect for human rights and clear moves towards democracy - a hint of the kind of conditions he might impose for MFN renewal.

Mr Patten declined afterwards to say what indications he had been given of the President's possible approach. Yesterday he also had meetings scheduled with the Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, the Deputy Secretary of State, Clifton Wharton, and the Congressional sponsors of a bill which seeks to impose drastic conditions on China in exchange for MFN renewal in 1994.

During his half-hour meeting with Mr Clinton, the Governor said he had put 'very strongly' the importance of MFN to Hong Kong, whose two main trading partners were China and the US. The President had shown 'great appreciation of our problems'. China's economic growth and free trade not only helped to improve the quality of life for its people, said Mr Patten, but 'shed light in dark corners'. If conditions were to be imposed on Peking's access to American markets, he hoped their impact on Hong Kong would not be too severe.

Although Mr Patten's mission is unlikely to achieve all its aims, his meeting with Mr Clinton, on a day when Washington was preoccupied with the Bosnian crisis, will be useful in reminding China what is at stake in its dispute with Britain over Hong Kong's future.

Mr Clinton said keeping the territory a free and open society after its handover to China in 1997 was 'clearly in the best interests' of the Chinese. Hong Kong was a haven from oppression for millions of people. Of Mr Patten's proposals for democratic elections in Hong Kong in 1994 and 1995, he said: 'I think this initiative is well-founded, and I support it.' He hoped his comments would not offend Peking, 'but how can the US be against democracy?'