Patten backs off from HK reform law: China steps up pressure by urging Britain to sack governor of colony

THE GOVERNOR of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, is expected to delay debate on his controversial reform programme until next month in an attempt to avert a final showdown with China, it was learnt yesterday. Peking has warned that introducing a bill in the colony's legislature to implement his proposals would make any talks 'impossible'.

The Governor decided yesterday not to introduce his bill at today's weekly session of the Legislative Council (Legco). It is unlikely to be tabled next week either. After that, Legco goes on Easter recess until 21 April. This will give Mr Patten, who visits London early next month, time to consult the Government on the next move.

China kept up the pressure on the Governor yesterday, with an official newspaper making the first explicit call for Britain to replace him. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, said the conditions for a meeting with his British counterpart, Douglas Hurd, were 'not ripe', but he held back from rhetoric which would have significantly raised the temperature. He repeated warnings that Peking would make no concessions over Hong Kong and that, if Mr Patten pressed ahead with his plans, economic and trade relations between Britain and China 'will be subjected to interference and damage'. But he added this was not something that China wanted to see.

The signed editorial in Shanghai's Liberation Daily said sacking Mr Patten - 'that descendant of colonialism' - was the best way for London to 'regain its reputation and its image of democracy and civilisation'. It again criticised Britain for only thinking about introducing democracy in Hong Kong just as sovereignty was due to pass to China. 'It is as if a prostitute sold her body all her life and then decided to close her business, suddenly telling everybody she wants to be chaste and to protect her body as if it were jade. Isn't what Patten's doing just the same thing?'

Only last week, John Major told the House of Commons that he was firmly behind the Governor's plans to increase democracy in Hong Kong. He was reacting to the latest Chinese outbursts, provoked by Mr Patten's decision to make formal publication of his draft legislation. The Governor did so under pressure from liberal legislators, who were suspicious of secret attempts to restart talks between China and Britain, but Peking's angry reaction, as well as disappointment in Hong Kong, appears to have made some of them think again: one or two prominent liberals have been quoted as saying there should be no rush to begin the Legco debate.

There is little hope of breaking the Sino-British deadlock in the near future. Mr Qian and Mr Hurd were scheduled to meet in the next few weeks, but Mr Qian seemed to rule this out yesterday. According to the Foreign Minister, Mr Hurd sent him a message on 6 February, saying he wanted a meeting if substantive progress could be made. 'Now the conditions for a meeting between us are not right,' commented Mr Qian.

He warned Mr Hurd that beginning the Legco debate 'would not help with the Sino-British talks you have proposed. On the contrary, it would only place an obstacle to the talks. I hope that the British side will give it careful consideration.' Hong Kong government officials originally said the bill would be tabled by the end of this month.