Clinton to talk with thorn in China's side

US 'sensitive' over welcome for HK democracy leader

President Bill Clinton has agreed to meet the leader of Hong Kong's democracy movement, Martin Lee, later this week in a decision widely seen as signalling US support for the continuation of political freedom in the colony after the end of British rule. But arrangements for the meeting have been fudged to make the occasion less than a full presidential reception for Mr Lee, a diplomatic compromise that illustrates the sensitivity of the Hong Kong issue for the Clinton administration.

According to White House spokesman Mike McCurry, Mr Lee has been invited for "talks" with Vice-President Al Gore on Friday. Mr Clinton will attend a portion of that meeting. In Mr McCurry's words, "the President will be interested in his thoughts on the transition that will occur in Hong Kong".

Although Mr Lee has enjoyed a high level of access while in Washington, including meetings with the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and senior members of Congress, a White House meeting had hung in the balance. The invitation means he must amend his schedule to return to the US capital on Friday, rather than fly home to Hong Kong direct from Canada.

While the form of the White House meeting is a little less than Mr Lee and his vocal supporters in Washington might have hoped for, they will find a sweet irony in the fact that Mr Lee's official host at the White House will be Vice-President Gore. Mr Gore came in for strong criticism last month for omitting Hong Kong from his Asian itinerary and for 'kowtowing' to the Chinese.

Eyebrows were raised by one episode in particular: Mr Gore's participation in a champagne toast presided over by the Chinese prime minister, Li Peng, to seal a deal with the US Boeing Corporation. Mr Gore appeared surprised and embarrassed by the toast, prompting suggestions that it had been sprung on him by the more diplomatically adept Chinese.

Mr Gore's conduct and statements during his Asia trip were contrasted in Washington with those of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, who visited the region shortly afterwards. Mr Gingrich made a point of emphasising US human rights concerns while in China, attended an Easter church service in Shanghai and included Taiwan and Hong Kong in his route without apparently incurring the explicit wrath of the Chinese.

With less than three months remaining until the Chinese takeover, Hong Kong is becoming almost as delicate a subject for US foreign policy as Taiwan. It is fraught with the same difficulties of balancing trade considerations against the principles of political freedom and human rights, with the added complication that relations with Britain are also involved.

Until recently, official policy appeared to be to remain on the sidelines and "wait and see". Increasingly vocal criticism of the administration's silence, however, especially after Peking said it wanted to limit freedom of political activity in Hong Kong after the handover, may have contributed to Mr Clinton's decision to meet Mr Lee.

As if to drive home the point, the governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, contributed an article to yesterday's New York Times commenting, more in sadness than anger, on China's apparent desire to limit free speech in Hong Kong.

t Results of a poll published in Hong Kong yesterday suggest that the popularity of Hong Kong's future leader, Tung Chee-hwa, has dipped over his proposed curbs on civil rights. A telephone survey commissioned by the South China Morning Post showed Tung had lost some public support after his office last week issued a plan to curb the right to demonstrate and ban foreign funding of Hong Kong political groups. More than 45 percent of 586 respondents said they had "less trust" in Tung safeguarding Hong Kong's interests than when he was appointed as leader-designate by a China-backed committee in December.

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