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Former envoy attacks Patten's democracy plan

THE GOVERNOR of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, who is about to put some of his political reform proposals to the colony's legislature at the risk of Chinese fury, was warned yesterday by Britain's former chief negotiator with China that he was 'taking Hong Kong over the edge'.

Sir Percy Cradock, Britain's ambassador in Peking from 1978 to 1984, and subsequently the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser until June last year, said Britain should reverse the unilateral and confrontational policy it had adopted since Mr Patten became Governor. 'We still could retreat,' he said. Persisting with proposals to broaden the franchise in Hong Kong risked a 'vicious backlash' from Peking.

Tomorrow Mr Patten will officially publish a draft bill to make changes in the colony's electoral system, and is due to table it for discussion by the Legislative Council (Legco) next Wednesday. Britain argues he is putting forward only the most urgent and least controversial aspects of his proposals, after seven months of fruitless talks with China, but Peking has said the start of the legislature's debate would kill off any future negotiations.

Yesterday Reuters news agency quoted Chinese sources as saying they were willing to accept the Governor's proposed voting method for the 1995 Legco elections if he held back now and resumed talks. A British source said no official offer had been made and he doubted it would be enough. Britain had proposed another round of talks in Peking from 17 to 19 December, but only to discuss matters outside Mr Patten's draft bill.

Sir Percy, who negotiated the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee yesterday that China would carry out its threats to dismantle whatever Mr Patten put in place. Pursuing more democracy in the face of Chinese opposition, and to the exclusion of all else, would result in permanent damage to democracy, the rule of law and 'the attributes of an open society'. He was supported in evidence to the committee by his two successors in Peking, Sir Richard Evans and Sir Alan Donald, who agreed Britain's change in policy was a mistake.

If Britain acted unilaterally, Sir Percy said, it gave the Chinese 'every pretext' to do so themselves. The lesser evil was to abandon Mr Patten's 'high-wire act' and negotiate the best deal possible, however humiliating it might appear. The interests of Hong Kong's people came first, and any other strategy would be 'indefensibly reckless'.

Sir Percy was involved in one or two sharp exchanges with MPs, telling Bob Wareing (Lab, Liverpool West Derby) that the Joint Declaration had been 'a triumph'. When Mr Wareing demurred, he said: 'You were all very pleased at the time.' 'Not everybody,' the MP interjected. Sir Percy described as 'an extraordinary and ignorant distortion' a complaint by a former Labour Foreign Office minister, Ted Rowlands, that British policy towards China had been run by 'Sinocentric diplomats'.