HK meeting leaves deal deadline open

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The Independent Online
A TOP-LEVEL government meeting to review Britain's negotiations with China over the future of Hong Kong yesterday failed to set a public deadline for the talks to be completed, despite their having made almost no progress so far.

John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, met the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, and Britain's chief negotiator, Sir Robin McLaren, at 10 Downing Street, but the meeting broke up more than half an hour earlier than expected. This reinforced suspicions that there was little to discuss, and that the main purpose was to signal impatience to the Chinese by recalling Mr Patten and Sir Robin, Britain's ambassador in Peking, to London.

In the sixth round of Sino- British talks last week, China is understood to have been marginally more forthcoming than before in spelling out its objections to Mr Patten's plans for more democratic elections in 1994 and 1995.

Afterwards, Mr Hurd and Mr Patten refused several times to set any deadline for the negotiations, while stressing that they could not go on indefinitely. Whether there was a successful outcome or not, the Governor's plans for greater democracy in Hong Kong would be put to the vote in the colony's Legislative Council (Legco), but Mr Patten admitted this was unlikely before the current Legco session ended in three weeks' time.

With district council elections not due until September next year, the negotiations with China are unlikely to be broken off in the near future. Some observers predict that Britain would be prepared to make substantial concessions on these polls, and the Legco election in 1995, in exchange for Chinese guarantees that those elected would not be prevented from serving their full terms. In Legco's case, this would be until 1999, two years after China takes control of Hong Kong.

Despite Peking's slightly more co-operative approach towards Hong Kong in recent weeks, Mr Hurd said that no date had been set for him to meet his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen. The two are supposed to meet twice a year, but they have not done so since last autumn.

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