British officials insist the letters refute Chinese allegations last week of a secret agreement to limit democracy in the 1995 Legislative Council (Legco) elections in Hong Kong. Wide-ranging plans for democratic reform put forward by the colony's new Governor, Chris Patten, are legitimate because they do not breach the Basic Law, China's mini-constitution for post-1997 Hong Kong, officials said.
China, however, maintains that the written exchanges show that in 1990 Mr Hurd, in an understanding separate from the Basic Law, accepted certain Chinese proposals about the 1995 electoral arrangements and that these have been breached by Mr Patten.
Quick publication was pressed for by Mr Patten. 'I don't want anybody in Hong Kong to think deals are being done behind their backs,' he said yesterday. It was also stressed that in 1990 the Executive Council, the Governor's policy-making body, was fully briefed.
The row over what passed between London and Peking in nine messages and papers during January and February 1990 highlights the disintegration in relations over Hong Kong. The 30-odd pages, together with more recent informal discussions, appear to offer neither side a knock-out blow; Mr Patten's main worry is that it offers ammunition to pro-Peking conservatives in Legco.
As China was no doubt aware when it first referred to the letters, they do not flatter Britain, even if they fail to prove Peking's case. Although they pre-date Mr Patten's involvement, they show how far the Foreign Office was prepared to compromise with a government still attracting international condemnation for massacring democracy demonstrators a few months before.
Publication of the Basic Law showed Britain had lost almost every substantive political issue discussed during its drafting. Mr Patten has been ahead on points so far in his efforts to redress the balance, but by forcing the release of the correspondence, China hopes to bog him down in justifying past history.
Mr Hurd, on 12 February 1990, while still pressing for more directly elected seats in Legco, did 'agree in principle' with Chinese proposals for the composition of an Electoral Committee 'which could be established in 1995'. This committee will indirectly elect 10 Legco members. Mr Hurd added that details would have to be discussed 'in due course' and that he hoped five principles outlined by Britain about the make-up of the Electoral Committee 'can be reflected' in the Basic Law.
A few days later, Mr Hurd told the House of Commons that there would be at least 20 directly elected Legco members in 1995. 'If we then decide to introduce the electoral arrangements envisaged in the Basic Law, it will be possible for members elected in 1995 to carry on over the 1997 barrier (when sovereignty reverts to China) to 1999 (the next Legco elections).'
China's present assault, and the threat last week to disband Mr Patten's Legco and install its own in 1997, rests on proving that Mr Hurd's 1990 agreement in principle still stands. That would rule out Mr Patten's ingenious proposal to compose the 1995 committee almost entirely of directly elected district councillors.
Britain's view is that any agreements in these written exchanges were explicitly made dependent on further discussions and on reaching agreement on other key issues debated in the letters. When the Basic Law was published, Britain had lost all these arguments. Officials now say Britain no longer considered Mr Hurd bound by anything in the letters. Unfortunately for them, London never put this in writing. There was no need, they insist, because the Basic Law explicitly said its Election Committee proposals held 'except in the case' of the first Legco - the one China would inherit in 1997.
Britain's strongest arguments are based on subsequent events. Since 1990 there has been much informal discussion covering plans for the Election Committee - as late as September this year China was talking about possible models for the 1995 polls. Britain insists that none of this makes sense if China thought the matter was already settled.