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Hopes fade for HK talks with China

Britain and China seemed poised on the brink of new hostilities over Hong Kong last night after Chris Patten, the Governor, formally published his proposed democratic reforms.

Weeks of delicate diplomatic negotiations, including last-ditch meetings yesterday morning in Peking, failed to get talks going on the colony's political future. China stuck to its refusal to accept Hong Kong officials on any British negotiating team, and Mr Patten decided there was no reason to delay his reforms any longer.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, quoted by the New China news agency after the bill was published, said: 'The Chinese side is shocked by this.' He added: 'The Chinese side must solemnly point out that the action taken by the British side proves not only that it has no sincerity for talks, but it also has been deliberately undermining the talks so that they cannot go on.'

Although there remains a slim chance that confrontation will be avoided, Hong Kong was last night bracing itself for a resumption of the rhetoric and threats from Peking that began last autumn, when Mr Patten first announced his proposals. The stock market, which in recent weeks had made big gains on the hope of talks, closed 201 points down at 6,170.

Mr Patten told Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco), that 'it would be very difficult for anybody to argue that we had behaved unreasonably' in gazetting the draft legislation. Publication had been held up for four weeks in the hope of reaching agreement on terms for talks.

'We haven't got a date for talks; we haven't even got a date when I'll be able to give you a date for talks; we haven't got agreement that Hong Kong officials should be part of the British team, as they have been for the last 10 years,' said Mr Patten. The Governor said that if he had announced another delay in publication, Legco and the community 'would have regarded me as more than a trifle indecisive'.

The content of the draft bill is no surprise: it formally sets out the content of Mr Patten's policy speech last October on how the 1994 and 1995 elections will be organised, and introduces limited moves to democratise the process.

Yesterday Mr Patten still left open the possibility of Sino- British talks by saying that he would judge 'in the light of subsequent developments' when to table the draft bill in Legco. However, it is difficult to see how he will be able to delay its introduction beyond Wednesday, when Legco next sits.

Hong Kong government officials let it be known yesterday that in the last hours of negotiations, Chinese officials appeared to be hardening their stance, and were even trying to re-open issues that had previously been agreed. Mr Patten told Legco that, while he still hoped there could be talks, the points of disagreement 'have become larger rather than smaller in the last day or two'.

For some time it has been clear that there has been a split on the Chinese side between hardliners in the New China News Agency and more moderate figures in the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, who were in favour of talks. The issue of whether Hong Kong officials could take part in the negotiations appeared to have been forced by the hardliners to the point where the Chinese side could not back down.

For Mr Patten, Hong Kong participation in any negotiations is a very strong issue on which to walk away from talks. Previous negotiating teams have always included Hong Kong officials; Michael Sze, the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs and one of two Hong Kong officials who would have been included this time, is already a member of Britain's delegation to the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group. While public support for talks has been very strong in Hong Kong, secret negotiations that did not include Hong Kong officials would have been seen as a return to the bad old days.