Hurd soothes fears over HK

BY COLIN BROWN

and MICHAEL SHERIDAN

Britain made a series of conciliatory gestures to the Chinese government yesterday in an effort to give fresh impetus to negotiations over the future of Hong Kong, which reverts to China within less than 800 days.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, told the House of Commons that he hoped for renewed co-operation with Peking following recent talks with China's Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen. Mr Hurd also sought to calm nerves about the future of China after the death of its paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. Britain believed China's "unity and integrity" would continue, he said. The Hong Kong stock market, already jittery over the uncertain pace of Sino-British talks, fell this week on rumours that an announcement of Mr Deng's demise was imminent.

Mr Hurd's speech coincided with a renewed offer by the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, to meet Lu Ping, China's senior official for Hong Kong affairs. Mr Lu has not seen Mr Patten since the Governor enacted democratic reforms without Peking's consent. "He knows perfectly well that whenever he would like to do so I am available to meet him," Mr Patten said.

The British overtures were completed by a newspaper article in which the Foreign Office minister Alistair Goodlad said the return of Hong Kong would "mark a major step towards reunification" for China, thus implicitly acknowledging Peking's aspiration also to bring Taiwan back under its rule.

Mr Hurd told MPs that Britain and China should work together on legislation to establish a court of final appeal in Hong Kong. He said the establishment of the appeal court to take over the role performed by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was of "great practical and symbolic significance" for the future rule of law in Hong Kong.

He also wanted to see greater certainty on the adaptation of Hong Hong law with China's Basic Law. "We need to accelerate the slow business of localising to Hong Kong legislation previously extended to the territory by Order in Council," Mr Hurd said.

British officials said a lack of confidence over the future legal structure was creating difficulties for business and could damage Hong Kong's economy.

There was little dissent from the Government's approach to the hand-over in 1997. Robin Cook, Labour's shadow Foreign Secretary, raised Opposition concerns about human rights. Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister, welcomed the assurance by the Foreign Secretary that the Government did not believe China would break up, like the former Soviet Union.

"Right at the top now they believe we are trading on future Chinese instability," said Sir Edward, who has close links with China. "They say, `You think we are going the same way as Russia and you are delaying things as long as you possibly can.' "

The Government wanted to concentrate on immigration and nationality arrangements for Hong Kong in the run-up to Chinese rule.

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