Major to deliver HK warning to China

Summit meeting: With handover less than 500 days away, Chinese PM will be told of 'damage to confidence'

MICHAEL SHERIDAN

Diplomatic Editor

John Major is expected to raise "problems of confidence" over the future of Hong Kong when he meets the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, in Thailand tomorrow, British sources said.

The Prime Minister is likely to hold talks with Mr Li in the margins of a 25-nation economic summit of Asian and European leaders in Bangkok. The meeting - the first between British and Chinese premiers for five years - has not been confirmed but officials in expect it to take place. Mr Major will need to stake out a firm position in defence of Hong Kong's interests before he flies on from Bangkok to the colony, for what could be the last visit by a British prime minister before the handover to China next year.

He could receive a rough ride from Hong Kong politicians, who resent British hesitation to grant residents of the territory entry without visas to Britain after the transition. Mr Major will also be made aware that reluctance to grant Hong Kong residents British passports has created ill-feeling. The South China Morning Post, the largest English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, has called him "loser of the week."

British sources said Mr Major would raise the "problems of confidence in Hong Kong" in his talks with the Chinese Prime Minister and would note that there are already "signs of damage" to business confidence. He is also likely to emphasise that 1996 is the crucial year for China to provide reassurance to political and business interests in Hong Kong. Britain views the nomination of a chief executive designate for the territory, expected this year, as a critical test.

Mr Major will be following in the footsteps of the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, who underlined British concerns during a visit to Hong Kong and Peking in January. But there is a feeling in Whitehall that Britain's message must be conveyed at the highest level if it is to make an impact on Chinese decisions.

The Prime Minister met Mr Li in 1991, when he was the first Western leader to visit China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. But relations worsened after the 1992 British general election, when Mr Major appointed the defeated Tory MP Chris Patten as 28th Governor of Hong Kong. Mr Patten initiated democratic reforms which aroused indignation in China. He has been denounced by the Chinese media and ostracised by Peking officials. But Mr Major has no choice but to stand by him, while attempting to reconcile his reforms with Chinese aspirations.

These issues were aired during a conciliatory visit to London by China's Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, last October. The Rifkind visit and Mr Major's latest move show that the differences remain far from resolution. There are less than 500 days before the end of British rule.

n Lisbon (Reuter) - The Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, said yesterday he would speak out for the human rights of the people of Indonesian-occupied East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, at the Bangkok summit.

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