Major in dilemma over HK meetings: The Prime Minister must decide what can be done about the continuing lack of progress in negotiations with China on the colony

WHEN John Major sits down tomorrow with the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, to consider the progress of negotiations with China on the colony's future, nobody will need to tell them that time is short. Exactly four years from midnight tonight, Britain will yield control of Hong Kong to Peking.

The Prime Minister and the Governor, who will be joined tomorrow by the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and Britain's chief negotatior on Hong Kong, Sir Robin McLaren, will have to decide whether the talks with China are going anywhere, and whether to set a deadline for results to be achieved.

In April, after six months of abusing Mr Patten and making crude threats against the colony's economy to get him to drop his plans for greater democracy, China agreed to resume negotiations. Chinese leaders appeared to be taking a new approach, separating political and economic questions, and hopes were boosted by Peking's agreement to three long-delayed franchises spanning 1997, the most important being a new tunnel under Hong Kong harbour. Last week the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group (JLG), set up to deal with the detail of the transition, met for the first time in six months.

The JLG meeting produced virtually nothing, however. With five rounds of talks on Mr Patten's constitutional proposals having been equally unproductive, British officials made no secret of their belief that China was simply trying to string them along. News that the Governor was returning to London for consultations was coupled with speculation that Britain might pull out of the talks altogether.

Perhaps coincidentally, the sixth round found Peking prepared to negotiate for the first time, although this entailed spelling out Chinese objections to the Governor's plans in greater detail rather than suggesting any alternatives. Suspicions remain that China yielded just enough to prevent the talks being broken off, and that next Monday,

when round seven begins, it will

be back to the old delaying tactics.

Despite growing British impatience, it is unlikely that any public ultimatum will be given to the Chinese. Hints are being dropped that if no agreement is forthcoming by September or October, Mr Patten may put his plans to the colony's Legislative Council for a vote; but previous efforts to set a hard and fast deadline have simply backfired.

Yesterday a former foreign secretary, Lord Howe, released the report of a British human rights delegation to China, which called for an urgent review of the death penalty, the release of prisoners held for political dissent, and steps to end the torture of detainees. To suggestions that the report might be considered weak, he replied that it was 'essentially an essay in persuasion' - words that might have come from any of Britain's negotiators with Peking - and that 'none of us are starry-eyed optimists'.

(Photograph omitted)