Commenting on contracts worth dollars 700bn ( pounds 470bn) for which British firms will compete over the next five to seven years, Mr Ma said in a newspaper interview: 'It is not good public relations to pursue confrontation over Hong Kong, which is so important to the Chinese people.' The reform plans of the Governor, Chris Patten, had caused 'great anger' among Chinese officials and businessmen, and the impact on British firms was 'hardly avoidable' as they competed with French, German and American firms for business.
Mr Hurd told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: 'I think British businessmen would be well advised not to take his analysis at face value. That kind of discrimination for political reasons is something which the European Union would have to take and would take very seriously.' The issue had been discussed briefly by EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, he added.
The Foreign Secretary denied suggestions that the appointment of Mr Patten as Governor of Hong Kong in 1992 had marked a change in British policy towards the colony, leading to confrontation with the Chinese.
He deplored the way the dispute over Mr Patten's proposals had been 'personalised' by Peking, which has called the Governor a whore, a liar, an idiot and even a tango dancer.
Although 17 rounds of talks with China had failed to reach agreement on the Governor's plans for greater democracy in Hong Kong, Britain remained willing to return to the negotiating table at any time, said Mr Hurd.
It was in China's interests to inherit a flourishing Hong Kong, but, Mr Hurd added: 'I am strongly against doing a deal in circumstances which appear shabby and inadequate. I don't think that would be doing a proper job by our last big colony.'
Asked if Mr Patten might be replaced if his presence was thought detrimental to Hong Kong's future, Mr Hurd said: 'Changing the people doesn't solve the political dilemma. I can't imagine any worse prelude to discussions with the Chinese than changing the Governor.'
The committee was sent a letter yesterday by Sir Percy Cradock, a former senior diplomat who is a bitter critic of Mr Patten, attacking the Governor for misrepresenting his views and revealing the content of confidential discussions when he appeared before the committee last month.
Mr Hurd said Sir Percy, one of the architects of Britain's Hong Kong policy and a former foreign policy adviser to two prime ministers, was out of touch.
In recent years Hong Kong had become a political as well as a commercial city, and Britain had to deal with both sides: 'I don't think Sir Percy is up to speed on that.'