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Hope deferred in HK talks: Hints of compromise at a later date

BRITISH and Chinese negotiators will today begin discussing the issue that has bedevilled their relations for the past eight months - the proposals by the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, to expand democracy in the colony.

Peking claims that Mr Patten's plans to extend the franchise at the 1994 district board elections and the 1995 Legislative Council (Legco) poll contravene previous Sino-British agreements. Last month it dropped its demand that the Governor withdraw his proposals as a pre-condition for talks on the future of Hong Kong; but the first two rounds of negotiations, during which the agreements were reviewed, remained deadlocked.

Before leaving Hong Kong yesterday, Sir Robin McLaren, Britain's ambassador to China and chief negotiator in the talks, said the third round in Peking would deal with electoral arrangements. Both sides have said virtually nothing about the negotiations since they began, but it seems unlikely that this round, which is due to last until Sunday, will be any more productive than the first two.

In the three weeks since the two sides last met, there have been fresh irritations for Peking. A Chinese newspaper called Mr Patten 'a whore' for his visit earlier this month to the United States, where he sought to persuade President Bill Clinton to renew China's 'most favoured nation' (MFN) trading status without conditions, thereby avoiding economic damage to Hong Kong. China also expressed 'regret' at a meeting last week between the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

By previous standards this was mild: Peking is anxious to avoid controversy until Mr Clinton decides on MFN, for which he has a 3 June deadline. Yesterday, however, there were reports from human rights groups of a wave of arrests in Tibet before the current visit to Lhasa by a group of European Community ambassadors and a British diplomat stationed in Peking.

Last week a news agency report, quoting unnamed Chinese sources, suggested that Peking might become more flexible in the Hong Kong talks after the MFN issue was out of the way. This was quickly contradicted by various figures, including the Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, who had been described as a force for moderation since he became directly involved in the Hong Kong negotiations. But there have also been hints on the British side of possible ways to compromise on the details of the Governor's proposals. One source stressed that despite the lack of progress so far, the atmosphere at the talks had been better than expected.

Mr Patten and his officials have also fallen silent about the need for Legco to vote on his plans during its current session, which ends in July. One suggestion is to concentrate on the 1994 election in talks with the Chinese, leaving the more controversial 1995 proposals until later.