Hong Kong talks unruffled by orphans

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Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday urged China to be open about conditions in its orphanages. He said he had told his counterpart, Qian Qichen "that the best way in which China could reassure the world that there were no abuses at these orphanages was to allow complete transparency, completely open contact to show that there was nothing to hide. And we very much hope that that kind of assurance can be given".

Mr Rifkind was speaking after more than two hours of discussions with Mr Qian during which both sides appeared to have decided not to let Peking's anger over last night's screening of the Channel 4 documentary Return to the Dying Rooms disrupt negotiations over Hong Kong. Despite earlier warnings that the programme was "certainly harmful for the environment of these discussions", the foreign ministry spokesman, Chen Jian, later characterised the meeting as "frank and pragmatic" and its outcome "beneficial".

In a sign that Sino-British relations continue to improve, the Chinese confirmed that Mr Rifkind would today meet the Prime Minister, Li Peng, and will tomorrow hold talks with President Jiang Zemin.

In his first visit as Foreign Secretary to China, Mr Rifkind said he had raised a number of human rights issues with Mr Qian including the recent Human Rights Watch report on Chinese orphanages, the 14-year jail sentence for the dissident Wei Jingsheng, and Tibet.

The Chinese side had defended its position that there was no abuse of the country's orphans "in very robust terms, but at no time was it implied that the subject matter of the programme would have any implications for the relations between the British and Chinese governments". Earlier in the week a Chinese embassy official in London was quoted as saying screening the documentary, which included the Human Rights Watch findings, would "poison" relations.

"With regard to Wei Jingsheng," said Mr Rifkind, "we emphasised our view ... that the sentence imposed upon him seemed very, very harsh indeed when one thinks of what seem to be the relatively minor offences with which he was charged." Mr Qian repeated the Chinese position that the sentence was "justified".

Mr Rifkind also raised "the subject of Tibet and the need for dialogue with the Tibetans and, if possible, with the Dalai Lama with regard to Tibetan matters".

On resolving outstanding issues over Hong Kong, he reported progress in five areas. The most important of these was a commitment from Mr Qian "that all those persons with permanent resident status who are now in Hong Kong will continue to have resident status after 1997". Although the question was posed after concerns were raised by Hong Kong businessmen without the right to Chinese nationality, Mr Rifkind said he understood it would also to apply to ethnic Chinese with foreign passports.

Peking had also agreed to give the go-ahead to the "vexed question" of the stalled CT9 container port. "We have been informed that the Chinese government can accept whatever the companies [in the port consortium] themselves agree. That is very satisfactory," said Mr Rifkind.

There was also agreement that the Preparatory Committee which will set up the post-1997 government will establish liaison with the present Hong Kong government. A minute was signed over China's arrangements for issuing the post-1997 Hong Kong passports, which will enable London to decide within two to three months whether such passport holders will be allowed visa-free entry into the UK.

Mr Rifkind made no headway in trying to persuade Peking not to scrap Hong Kong's Legislative Council when the colony reverts to China. "I made it clear that in our view the dismantlement of the Legislative Council would serve no useful purpose .... We continue to hope that the Chinese government will reconsider their current position." Mr Chen said the Chinese decision "remains unchanged and will not change".

n China expressed "grave concern and strong displeasure" at Washington's decision to grant transit visas to the Taiwanese Vice-President Li Yuan- zu. The foreign ministry said Taiwan was "a very sensitive issue" in Sino- US relations.