Optimism in HK on talks with Peking

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The Independent Online
THE NEXT round of Sino-British negotiations will reconvene on Friday, it was announced yesterday, amid cautious optimism in Hong Kong that China may be shifting towards a business-as-usual approach to the colony on other matters while the political discussions continue.

The third round of talks ended in Peking with a joint statement saying only that the next round would be held on 28 and 29 May. There was still no indication that detailed discussions have begun on arrangements for the 1994 and 1995 elections in Hong Kong, or that agreement has been reached on anything other than to keep talking. But the British team leader, Sir Robin McLaren, said: 'The atmosphere was good.'

Government officials considered it a good sign that the gap between negotiating rounds was quite short this time. In the meantime, there have been hints that China may agree a date for meetings of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group to reconvene, and that there could be new scope for a compromise on restarting talks on financing plans for the Chek Lap Kok airport. Last week China surprised the colony by giving the go-ahead for a new cable television project and two other big business contracts that needed its approval.

Meanwhile, Sir Percy Cradock, a former ambassador to China and former foreign affairs adviser to Number 10, last night arrived in Hong Kong on the first leg of a controversial visit to China that the Foreign Office had asked him to cancel. Sir Percy last autumn harshly criticised Chris Patten's strategy as Governor of Hong Kong as too confrontational towards China. British officials are concerned that his visit is ill-timed and could send the wrong signals to Peking while delicate Sino-British negotiations are under way. When he is in Peking he will dine with the Chinese negotiating team leader, Jiang Enzhu.

Sir Percy last night said his visit was private and that he had told the Chinese he would not talk about Hong Kong. He added: 'I don't see how I could do any harm unless it is thought that by simply being in a place I exude some sort of malign influence. And you cannot have a situation where, simply because we have some tricky negotiations with the Chinese, travel to Peking should be withheld. These talks will be decided by the two governments. These negotiations are not going to be upset by a stray word by a retired official on a private visit.'

Sir Percy is a director of a China fund run by the merchant bank Kleinwort Benson. The fund is holding a board meeting in Shanghai on Wednesday which he said was fixed 'months ago'. He is then flying home by way of Peking where he will see old friends. 'I'll see the ambassador, of course. And I will also see Jiang Enzhu who is the vice-foreign minister,' said Sir Percy. Mr Zhang invited Sir Percy to a meal, 'and of course I said yes'. Sir Robin will also be present at the dinner.

But Sir Percy saw no need to cancel the trip. 'I have made it plain to the Chinese that I will, of course, not try to meddle in the negotiations. I am not going to raise the subject of Hong Kong or get involved in discussions about negotiations. The Chinese are well aware of that, and accept it.'