Hurd fails to convince Hong Kong he cares

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THE FOREIGN Secretary, Douglas Hurd, yesterday urged China to recognise the 'shared interests' of pushing ahead with preparations for Hong Kong's future, but he gave little cause for optimism that progress on the 'formidable backlog of work' would speed up.

Mr Hurd declared that 'to despair of agreement is to opt for something which is very much an inferior choice'. However, little of substance is expected to come out of next week's meeting of the Sino- British Joint Liaison Group (JLG), which is months behind in sorting out the practical aspects of the transfer of sovereignty.

Members of the Legislative Council (Legco), less than half of whom had bothered to turn up, said they were disappointed by their hour with the Foreign Secretary. Emily Lau, an independent member, said Mr Hurd gave the impression that he 'did not really care very much and did not feel there was much he could do either'.

Mr Hurd was on a 26-hour visit ahead of a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, at the end of this month. In July, after Legco passed the electoral reform package of the Governor, Chris Patten, British officials were optimistic that China would draw a line between political and practical issues. An agreement on financing the new airport was said to be very close, and details were finalised for the CT9 container terminal.

Optimism has dissipated. This week a new row erupted when China said it would block the CT9 franchise unless the British company, Jardine Matheson, withdrew. An airport deal seems a long way off. China is newly confident following President Jiang Zemin's recent European visit and Western craving to do business in China. Mr Qian this week said Britain had changed its policy on Hong Kong 'from a miscalculation of the global trend'.

According to Mr Hurd yesterday, 'the uncertainties which remain, the doubts which exist, no longer dominate the life of Hong Kong'. Others think differently; Ms Lau said yesterday that the 'level of anxiety' was rising ahead of 1997.

Many people in Hong Kong were shocked this month when Tsang Yok- Sing, the head of the main pro-Peking party, admitted his family had gone to live in Canada, and that he himself had once applied to emigrate. If someone that close to China could not convince his own family of Hong Kong's post- 1997 attractions, people asked, what hope was there?

Journalists are worried about a growing trend of self- censorship. Ms Lau, said: 'Some of the journalists fear that China would cause them to settle accounts after 1997 for what they write now that may displease China.'

Last month, Jimmy Lai stepped down as head of the Giordano retailing chain after an article he wrote criticising China's Prime Minister, Li Peng, led to the company's central Peking shop being shut down. TVB, a local television channel, earlier this year decided against showing the controversial BBC documentary on Mao Tse-Tung that so inflamed the Chinese government. And Rupert Murdoch admitted that China's views had contributed to his decision to drop BBC World Service TV from the Satellite Star TV service that is beamed to East Asia.