Hong Kong talks on brink of collapse: Only UK climbdown or Chinese concession can avert deadlock

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The Independent Online
TALKS between Britain and China on the political future of Hong Kong were on the verge of collapse last night after another unproductive day of negotiations in Peking. The Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, could put his democracy proposals to the colony's legislature within a few days.

Short of a completely unheralded concession by the Chinese or a humiliating climbdown by Britain, today's session is expected to end in deadlock. No immediate announcement is likely, but officials said if no date was named for another round of talks, it could be assumed the talks were in crisis. 'That's it as it looks now,' said one source. 'You can never tell with the Chinese until the curtain comes down, but you would need some pretty major last-minute movement on their side to keep the process alive. It's disappointing after all the effort that's been put in.'

Britain's chief negotiator, Christopher Hum, said after yesterday's talks with Jiang Enzhu, a Chinese vice-foreign minister, that a 'wide gap' still separated the two sides. He refused to go into details, but the sticking point is understood to be the 1995 elections for the Legislative Council (Legco), Hong Kong's main representative body. Britain wants any preliminary agreement on questions such as the voting age and voting methods to apply to the Legco poll as well as earlier municipal elections, but China insists on treating the two sets of elections separately.

Barring an eleventh-hour breakthrough, Mr Hum is expected to be brought back to London for high-level consultations.

The first confirmation that the talks have irretrievably broken down is likely to be an announcement from Hong Kong of the date on which Mr Patten will table his democracy proposals in Legco. This would probably lead to a resumption of the war of words between Britain and China which shook Hong Kong and undermined investor confidence following the announcement of Mr Patten's programme last October.

Peking greeted his plans to widen the franchise in the 1994 and 1995 elections with a barrage of threats that alarmed even its friends in the colony. The tone was later softened, but Chinese opposition to the Governor has remained immovable. Peking offered to begin talks in March, when Mr Patten seemed on the point of tabling his proposals in Legco, but with the 17th round nearly over after more than 160 hours of negotiations, this now appears to have been a delaying tactic.

Peking has insisted that if changes are made in Hong Kong without its approval, they will be reversed after the colony reverts to Chinese control in 1997. The political row has also stalled Chinese co-operation in other spheres, the most important being Hong Kong's planned airport at Chek Lap Kok.

After its initial outbursts, China sought to reassure Hong Kong's business community that it would not allow its quarrel with Britain to undermine the colony's economy, but Barry Yates, a director at Vickers Ballas stockbrokers, said the stock market had begun to get nervous after largely ignoring the talks.

'If the talks do break down, and Patten goes ahead and tables legislation . . . the volume from Peking is going to be turned up loud, and we're going to have probably a war of words and that's going to unsettle nerves here,' Mr Yates said on Hong Kong radio.