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HK vote for Patten reforms on knife edge

THE Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, is lobbying frantically ahead of a crucial vote tomorrow that will determine the survival or failure of his controversial political reforms, and his future with them.

'It's on a knife-edge for Patten,' Jimmy McGregor, one of the colony's legislators, said yesterday.

Mr Patten described tomorrow's vote by the Legislative Council (Legco) as 'one of the most important decisions in Hong Kong's 150-year history'. Apart from shaping political development in the last three years of colonial rule, the vote will pass judgement on the Governor's strategy of pushing for greater democracy, despite a storm of protest from China.

By last night he appeared to be heading for a very close- run victory, but the unpredictable voting intentions of some pro-Peking legislators and non-aligned Legco members make a last-minute upset possible. Defeat would be a political disaster both in Hong Kong and Britain, leaving Mr Patten a 'lame duck' in the run-up to 1997.

The tension within Legco, however, contrasts sharply with scepticism on the streets. Two years of acrimony with Peking, 17 fruitless rounds of Sino-British talks and the extreme complexity of the voting system have left the average Hong Kong person more interested in the World Cup, polls say. 'I now detect a weariness,' Mr Patten wrote in the Sunday Morning Post.

The picture is further complicated by the recent revival of talks with China on non- political items, such as funding for the new airport and a possible agreement on Hong Kong's future defence sites. Hopes that the first deals would be struck yesterday, however, were dashed when the current session of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group was adjourned for a second time, this time until Thursday. The timing led some legislators to attack China for seeking to put pressure on Legco members.

On the table are the original reform proposals announced by Mr Patten nearly two years ago, which seek to widen the franchise as much as possible short of direct elections, and a total of 14 rival amendments that span the political spectrum. In practice, the only possible alternative to the Governor's package is a proposal from the pro- business Liberal Party to water down his reforms so much that Peking might find them acceptable.

The survival or otherwise of his original proposals comes at a critical time for Mr Patten, who is now under fire from pro-democracy legislators for his reluctance to confront China on other issues: his rejection of a human rights commission for Hong Kong, refusal to back freedom of information legislation, and blocking visas for exiled Chinese dissidents.

Lobbying has been intense, but it is now a matter of numbers among the 59 legislators. With the pro-democracy parties, some independents and the three government ex- officio members, Mr Patten can count on at least 27 votes. The Liberals probably have about 24. The decision depends on which way the independents jump, and whether the pro-Peking legislators vote for the Liberals. If they abstain, they will hand victory to Mr Patten.