Hong Kong 'losing patience' as talks fail: Peking and London blame each other after 17 meetings fail to produce agreement

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNOR of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was meeting his advisers yesterday as Britain and China blamed each other for the collapse of negotiations on the colony's political future.

Mr Patten said that despite 17 rounds of talks over the past seven months, the two sides had failed to agree even on 'straightforward' matters. The Hong Kong community had been very patient, but 'patience is understandably wearing a bit thin'.

In the absence of some unexpected move to break the deadlock, Mr Patten and the colony's Executive Council are expected to seek the go-ahead from London this week for plans to give Hong Kong voters a greater say in the elections due in 1994 and 1995.

The Governor's proposals, first unveiled in October last year, drew a furious reaction from Peking, which said any changes made in Hong Kong's political system without its approval would be reversed after it took control in 1997. In April, China agreed to begin talks on Mr Patten's plans when he seemed on the point of tabling them for debate by the colony's Legislative Council, Legco.

Yesterday he said the only matter on which Peking had been prepared to compromise was lowering the voting age in Hong Kong from 21 to 18, which is already the rule in both Britain and China. When the 17th round of talks ended in Peking on Saturday, the two sides failed for the first time to set a date for their next meeting.

Chinese mouthpieces gave no indication yesterday of what Peking's immediate strategy might be, beyond laying the blame on Britain for the failure of negotiations. Wen Wei Po, a Peking-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, said: 'The responsibility for the fruitless end to Sino-British talks lies entirely with the British side.' China was still willing to negotiate for as long as Britain wanted, but it could not accept any unilateral move over the colony.

The conflict between London and Peking centres on the 1995 election for Legco, Hong Kong's main representative body. Apart from sharp disagreement over Mr Patten's plans to widen the franchise, Britain is demanding guarantees that those elected will serve their full terms until 1999, two years after the handover.

Sources in the colony's government accuse Peking of seeking to rig the poll against its more outspoken opponents. If that fails, say the sources, China will attempt to justify removing those Legco members it considers to be 'subversive' in 1997, because it does not want to risk the spread of democratic ideas to other parts of the country. Against that background, they add, the talks never stood much chance of success.

Mr Patten may seek to postpone a showdown, however, by tabling only the part of his proposals relating to less controversial local elections next year and in early 1995, leaving arrangements for the autumn 1995 Legco poll until later.

Despite the likely resumption of its war of words against Britain and Mr Patten, China will probably continue to assure Hong Kong that it wants to keep political and economic issues separate. The colony's stock market wilted a year ago under a barrage of Chinese threats and warnings, but became less sensitive to political factors as the talks dragged on. Although shares are expected to fall today, analysts believe that the reaction will be well short of panic.

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