'Talks will be very difficult,' Mr Patten said. 'I don't want to sound gloomy, I don't want to sound pessimistic, but these are very difficult matters.'
No final agreement on resuming a dialogue has yet been reached. But Mr Patten told Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco) that there remained 'only a few points of disagreement which could and should be resolved quickly'. One of the sticking points is believed to be the composition of the British team which Mr Patten reassured Legco would include Hong Kong government officials.
In the spirit of 'going the extra mile' for negotiations, formal publication of the draft political reform legislation was yesterday postponed for the fourth week, but Mr Patten warned 'there could not be an indefinite delay'. No timetable is being set by the British side but, wary that China could use negotiations to stall the legislative process, it is clear that 'talks about talks' will have to be completed well before the end of March, and that any negotiations would be given weeks rather than months to make progress.
In his statement to the special session of Legco, Mr Patten sought to allay fears that either he or the Council were being edged out of the negotiating process. Any proposals agreed in Sino- British talks would have to be voted through by Legco, and could in theory be amended by the Council, he confirmed. However, he added: 'I think if there was an agreement between Britain and China which was broadly acceptable, not only to Britain and China but to people in Hong Kong, the Council would probably think twice . . . about amending it in ways which would send Britain back to the negotiating table with China.' Legco would not become a 'rubber stamp'.
Several Legco members voiced concern that they would be kept in the dark while negotiations were conducted. The Governor said the basis of any agreement would have to be set out publicly, but added: 'I wouldn't be in a position in which, after every round of talks, if talks took place, I could come to the Council and describe exactly what had been happening around the negotiating table . . . I think if one was to do that, one would introduce an element into the diplomacy and into the negotiation which would be frankly unacceptable to both sides.'
Mr Patten emphasised that his original proposals for political reform in the colony remained on the table. 'I hope that if there are talks we will learn what alternative proposals Chinese officials have to put on the table,' he said. But there is concern on the British side, given past negotiations, that the talks themselves may get bogged down in the detail of historic exchanges, and may again degenerate into a game of brinkmanship. The Chinese side, for instance, last month only finally said they were interested in talks one day before the legislation was originally due to be published.
While yesterday's performance by Mr Patten - looking healthy and much slimmer than before his heart operation - was robust, there appear to be several dilemmas now for the Governor. He cannot be seen to be rejecting the chance of negotiations, but he is already facing criticism from the pro-democracy legislators, formerly his staunch allies, for the delay in gazetting the legislation. Support yesterday was coming instead from the conservative pro- Peking legislators who, over the past few months, have been so adversely critical of the Governor.
It is also likely that, whereas everyone expected Legco to amend the original Patten proposals before passing them, many legislators will be less happy to accept the same amendments if they have been negotiated in private Sino- British talks.
The British side may find there is little scope for watering down the original proposals if they are to have broad support within Legco and from the United Democrats, the party with most of the directly elected seats.