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Insults fly on eve of Hurd's visit to HK

A NEW war of words has broken out between China and the Hong Kong Governor, Chris Patten, on the eve of a visit here by the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. Peking slammed the Governor as a 'thief, crying 'stop thief' ', accusing him of awarding a big government contract to the Jardine Matheson group in return for political favours.

Mr Patten retorted yesterday that such language was 'demeaning and undignified'. He added: 'I think people who made those sorts of statements need to be very careful that they do not do very serious damage to our reputation in Hong Kong and to our prospects.'

Mr Hurd arrives in the colony today before his meeting in New York at the end of the month with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen. Britain has been pressing for the two countries to put political differences aside and concentrate on the practical aspects of the 1997 changeover in sovereignty.

The latest row centres on the award of part of the 'CT9' contract for a container terminal to a consortium headed by Jardine Matheson. In June, a director of the group, Martin Barrow, abstained in the Legislative Council vote on Mr Patten's electoral reform proposals, allowing the package to scrape through by one vote. Mr Patten recently warned that contracts must not be awarded according to 'political correctness'.

Sir Hamish Macleod, Hong Kong's Financial Secretary, yesterday said it was 'utterly groundless' to suggest that there was anything other than a 'level playing field' for all government contracts.

Jardine Matheson, the most British of the original trading company 'hongs', bears the brunt of Peking's attacks on colonial business in Hong Kong. The group's history as an opium trader has been compounded by support for Mr Patten, the relocation of its legal base to Bermuda, and a decision to stop listing its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange.