Patten fails to break deadlock with Peking

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CHRIS PATTEN, on his first visit to Peking since becoming governor of Hong Kong in July, came to a halt in one of the capital's main avenues yesterday when his Daimler had a puncture. It was tempting to see the unscheduled stop as a symbol for his two days of frustration with the Chinese.

Mr Patten, who returns to Hong Kong today, admitted last night that talks had effectively run aground on the two main issues: his proposals for greater democracy in Hong Kong and the colony's new airport project. 'I hope that we will have discussions which will avoid any stalemate,' he said, 'but we can't allow a stalemate to persist indefinitely.'

China signalled resistance to Mr Patten's plans by administering two carefully graded snubs. Instead of meeting the Prime Minister, Li Peng - the level at which previous governors have been received - Mr Patten saw the Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen.

As in the previous day's talks with Lu Ping, the director of China's Hong Kong and Macao office, both sides got no further than stating their differing positions on Mr Patten's political programme.

The official news agency, Xinhua, quoted Mr Qian as saying the Governor's plan was 'a challenge to co-operation'. It 'places obstacles before the smooth transition of Hong Kong and the smooth transfer of power in 1997'.

Although Peking denies any link, there is unlikely to be any progress on financing the HKdollars 175bn ( pounds 14bn) airport until the constitutional dispute is resolved. Mr Patten has said he will not trade his democracy proposals for the airport, and that Hong Kong could carry on with the project alone if necessary.

The Chinese response cannot have surprised the Governor. His constitutional proposals, outlined in his inaugural speech earlier this month, were devised to stay within China's Basic Law, which sets out how it will run Hong Kong after 1997, but to use to the utmost what freedom he has to manoeuvre. The proposals faced China with the choice of negotiating or retreating into obduracy - and it has taken the latter course. Peking insists that Britain should adhere to the Basic Law, without going into detail or offering alternative proposals. Yesterday the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wu Jianmin, repeated this position several times in response to questions on the talks.

China can now be expected to preserve diplomatic correctness while using its unofficial mouthpieces to vilify Mr Patten and undermine his support in the colony. This test of his nerve, as important as any faced by a Governor since the 1984 Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong, will probably continue until early next year, when he puts his plans to the colony's Legislative Council for a vote.

If they are passed, China will have to decide whether to continue ignoring them or to step up the pressure. Unless it is heedless of the effects on business and political confidence in Hong Kong, however, it will have to keep the dispute within bounds.

Mr Patten is constantly accused of gambling with the territory's future, but hopes China will change its attitude once it sees its rhetoric is having no effect.