HK reformer lashes 'spineless' Britain: Talks with China falter despite concessions

HONG KONG'S leading pro-democracy politician yesterday accused the British government of having no 'backbone' and of being 'on the brink of a total capitulation to Peking'.

In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who will meet his Chinese counterpart in New York later today, Martin Lee said that Hong Kong 'was approaching a constitutional and political crisis' because of the lack of progress on political reform. Mr Lee, who leads the United Democrats of Hong Kong (UDHK), said his party was 'shocked and outraged at the senselessness of making further and further concessions to the Chinese government'.

When Mr Hurd sits down with Qian Qichen this afternoon, it will be to assess the very limited progress during 12 rounds of Sino-British negotiations on the arrangements for the 1994 and 1995 elections in the colony. Britain is understood to have offered substantial concessions on the democracy proposals made last October by the Governor, Chris Patten, but wants the Chinese to agree in exchange that anyone elected in 1994 and 1995 will be able to complete their term after Hong Kong is handed over in 1997 - the so-called 'through train'. While engaging the British in minute discussion about the administrative arrangements for the elections, however, Peking's negotiators have so far declined to talk about the 'through train' at all.

Mr Lee said the main priority should be to give as many votes as possible to Hong Kong people. 'An undemocratic through train is of very little use to Hong Kong,' he said.

With China digging in its heels, and the UDHK accusing Britain of 'shifting its bottom line', Mr Hurd will have to decide whether it is worth continuing the discussions much longer, and whether Hong Kong public opinion would back any decision to walk away from the negotiating table. The UDHK, which won almost all the directly-elected Legislative Council (Legco) seats in the 1991 elections, wants Mr Patten to introduce his electoral reform bill immediately.

The foreign ministers' meeting is taking place just days before Mr Patten makes his annual address to Legco. He has promised to reveal next Wednesday some of the contents of the Sino-British negotiations 'without breaching confidentiality'. It is exactly a year since he introduced his electoral reform proposals. On one hand, he is now under pressure from the liberals to explain why it is worth waiting any longer; on the other hand a certain level of apathy has started to set in in Hong Kong and many people do not want to see a destabilising diplomatic row flare again between Britain and China.

Impending political crisis or otherwise, the Hong Kong stock market yesterday shrugged off the possibility of a talks break-down and closed at a record high, the Hang Seng index up 125.12 points to close at 7676.22, a rise of 1.66 per cent. After the roller-coaster performance earlier this year when Sino-British relations were at a low, the stock market has become much less a barometer of political sensitivities, as foreign investment money focuses instead on China's economic boom.

Mr Lee's toughly-worded letter does, however, put the British government on notice that Hong Kong's directly-elected politicians woEuld vote against any Sino-British agreement that was a 'gutted THER write errorand worthless' version of the original electoral reform package.