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Hurd detects thaw in China's stance on Hong Kong: Poor still need convincing that participation in elections is worthwhile

AT the Ping Shek Temporary Housing Estate in Kowloon, where families of four live in 12-foot-square steel huts, the need for free and fair elections runs a poor second, in the minds of most residents, to the desire for alternative accommodation.

As the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, was announcing yesterday that agreement had been reached with China to speed up negotiations on democratic reform in the colony, a number of Ping Shek residents said they did not even intend to vote in the 1994-5 elections. 'I spent half my life in the mainland. And half my life in Hong Kong. And I have come to the conclusion that whoever is in government, whatever government is like, it is basically the same, so just get on with your life, and make a living,' said one man.

Yesterday marked the end of Chris Patten's first year as Governor of Hong Kong. Last July he arrived in a plain suit, having eschewed the outlandish traditional governor's uniform, and then swiftly stamped his own brash political style on the colony. It was during the unprecedented public question-and-answer sessions accompanying the launch of his pro-democracy electoral reform package last October that Mr Patten promised one man that he would accompany him to see a run-down temporary housing area like Ping Shek. Hong Kong people were amazed. Governors had never behaved like that before.

Taking stock yesterday, the Governor knows that, despite months of vitriolic attacks from China, he remains popular in the colony, with a 60-per-cent personal-approval rating in the latest poll. But he also knows the toughest decisions may yet be to come. His reform package, instead of now being close to approval by Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco), is still on the negotiating table in Peking, with little progress after seven rounds of talks.

Mr Hurd's meeting yesterday in Peking with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, represented an apparent thawing in Sino- British relations. Mr Hurd said it seemed 'positive' and 'entirely forward-looking'. The Foreign Secretary also had an unplanned meeting with Jiang Zemin, head of state and head of the Communist Party. But actual agreement on the details of elections still seems remote.

'I stressed the need to get on with things,' said Mr Hurd later, in Hong Kong, where he was greeted by a pro-democracy rally outside the Central Government Offices. He said he had focused attention on what seemed essential to Britain: details of the restricted electoral colleges which account for a majority of seats in Legco, and transparent criteria to decide whether individual legislators can remain on Legco after 1997 (the so-called 'through train'). No deadlines were set by Mr Hurd.

There were some unexpected bonuses for Britain: go-ahead from China for a big land- reclamation contract connected with the new airport, dates for the next Sino-British Joint Liaison Group meetings, and agreement for Mr Hurd and Mr Qian to meet again in September in New York.

Mr Patten has said that, without an agreement, he will press ahead with his own package. However the electoral arrangements emerge, he may still have to persuade a large section of the colony's poorer people, accustomed to patrician colonial government, that the electoral process is something worth taking part in.

Mr Lee, who runs the general store at Ping Shek, met Mr Patten when the Governor finally visited the estate last month. 'He chatted with old ladies about their well-being. He does care about ordinary people,' he said. But Mr Lee, who did not vote in the 1991 Legco elections, does not plan to participate in 1995 either. 'I pay very little attention to politics.'

A Mrs Chan said: 'Most of the lower- class people are not interested in voting. Just the middle class.' Legco looked out for the rich, she said: 'Lower-class people feel powerless.' In the nearby shopping-centre, a manager of an engineering factory said: 'Patten is quite good.' But he had already got an Australian passport, just in case.

(Photographs omitted)