The temperature of the debate was turned up yesterday by Hong Kong's Financial Secretary, Sir Hamish Macleod, who said the authorities would press ahead with the colony's dollars 20.3bn ( pounds 13.6bn) new airport despite failure to agree financing plans with the Chinese. The Legislative Council, given the choice of mothballing the project or injecting enough finance to allow the next round of contracts to be awarded, appeared to be favouring the latter option, he said.
Sir Hamish added that he hoped the Chinese, who have hampered the project for nearly two years, would begin to talk once they realised it gave them no leverage over other issues. 'It hasn't affected the political talks one inch,' he told Reuters news agency.
At the weekend, however, a senior Chinese trade official warned that Britain's trade would not remain unaffected by political differences over Hong Kong. 'Bilateral economic and trade relations can hardly escape damage from an unco-operative and unfriendly Britain,' Tong Jiemin, deputy director- general of European affairs at the Trade Ministry, told the official China Daily. Such an implied threat has not been heard for nearly a year, and comes when France is seeking to repair relations with Peking.
The French government, which a year ago agreed to sell Taiwan 60 Mirage fighters worth pounds 1.3bn, last week issued a joint statement with China in which it promised not to sell any more weapons to the island, and reaffirmed that it recognised Peking's claim to Taiwan. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, will meet the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, in Paris next week, and Mr Balladur will visit China in March. According to political sources in Paris, the sight of Chancellor Helmut Kohl returning to Germany last November with nearly pounds 2bn worth of contracts convinced the French that they could no longer afford to be frozen out of the Chinese market.
'We appreciate that we are a bit more isolated as a result of the French decision,' said a British source, 'but despite all that has happened in the past year or more, there is still no sign of discrimination against British business.'
Last month, after seven months of talks ended in stalemate, Mr Patten introduced the first part of his political reform. In his meetings with John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, this week he is expected to discuss the shape and timing of the second part, which is likely to be far more controversial since it deals with the crucial 1995 Legislative Council election. China has already threatened to reverse Mr Patten's reforms when it takes over in Hong Kong, but appears to be holding its fire until it sees his next move.
Britain is likely to feel the brunt of Peking's assertiveness, because the Chinese appear to have changed tack in dealing with the US. President Jiang Zemin is said to have told a congressional delegation at the weekend that China would 'make an effort' to meet Washington's concerns on human rights.
Peking had apparently misinterpreted the US desire for more contact as a signal that its human rights policy was purely for domestic consumption. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, will repeat his message to Mr Qian in Paris next week: without clear progress on this issue, China cannot expect its 'most favoured nation' trading privileges to be renewed later this year. Peking, which relies on its huge trade surplus with the US to sustain its economic boom, now appears to be heeding these warnings.
Asia's Great Game, page 16