HK row enters a new phase

SINO-BRITISH relations headed into uncharted territory last night after Chris Patten, the Hong Kong Governor, tabled the first of his pro-democracy electoral reforms in the colony's parliament.

China's response came swiftly and predictably. A statement read out on state television said that the British Government had 'now sabotaged the basis of Sino-British co-operation'. The British side had intended unilaterally to break off the Sino-British talks, 'creating man-made chaos' in the run-up to the handover of sovereignty in 1997. It was 'another serious step towards confronting China'. Stern though these warnings sounded, they mostly repeated comments at the weekend by the Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen.

The statement also encouraged all those Hong Kong people who supported a smooth transition to become 'more positively involved' in the Preliminary Working Committee, a body of appointed mainland officials and Hong Kong individuals that is working on plans to scrap any Legislative Council (Legco) left behind by Britain in 1997.

China's tactics could yet cause problems for Mr Patten. The Liberals, a pro-business political party that prefers to keep on the right side of Peking, yesterday started to back away from previous commitments to support the partial reform bill, saying it would first have to consult its members. Its chairman, Allan Lee, said: 'I don't think the party itself can make a stand at the moment, if we want to hold the party together.'

With both China and Britain trying to blame the other side for the breakdown in negotiations, attention will now focus on Legco's handling of this first reform bill. The three measures introduced yesterday - lowering the voting age to 18, adopting a single-seat,

single-vote electoral system and abolishing appointed members in local councils - are uncontroversial in Hong Kong and have always had cross-party support. But introduction of the partial bill is going to be the first real test of whether a majority of Legco members are willing to follow Mr Patten and go against China, even on minor issues.

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