Patten heads for clash with China on HK democracy: Governor ignores Peking's threats and presses ahead with reforms after seven months of talks fail to bring deal

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The Independent Online
THE Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, yesterday embarked on a collision course with China by announcing plans to increase democracy in the colony. Although his most controversial proposals have been left aside for the time being, a senior Chinese official immediately said his package would mean the breakdown of negotiations on Hong Kong's future.

Mr Patten told a hushed meeting of the Legislative Council that he would formally publish a bill next week to make changes in the electoral system, and introduce it for debate by the legislature on 15 December. Attempts to reach agreement with China on his proposals had failed after seven months of talks, he said, 'even on the most urgent and uncontroversial issues'. Pressure of time made it necessary to move ahead with legislation before the end of this year.

China has threatened to reverse any changes made unilaterally in Hong Kong after it takes control of the colony in 1997. Yesterday Peking's top official responsible for Hong Kong, Lu Ping, said it did not matter whether the package Mr Patten was putting forward was partial or complete. 'If Britain puts its package to Legco . . this will mean that Britain has unilaterally broken the talks. This is a question of principle,' said Mr Lu, director of China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office. 'The British side has already unilaterally broken the talks, destroyed the talks.'

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, emphasised that Mr Patten's plans had the full backing of the Government. 'We had hoped they would be uncontroversial. Unfortunately, they are not,' he said in Brussels. 'But we hope that it will be possible to continue discussions with China on the other matters.'

Despite the uncompromising tone of the exchanges, both sides appear to be indulging in brinkmanship. Mr Patten is pressing ahead only with issues on which China had seemed close to agreeing in the negotiations, and is shelving anything affecting the core of the conflict: how most of the Legislative Council will be elected in 1995, and on what terms its members will be allowed to serve through the transition until their four-year terms end in 1999 - the so-called 'through train'. In the view of Hong Kong officials, China will do anything possible to prevent an independent legislature, fearing that it would spread the contagion of democracy to the rest of the country.

The Governor clearly hopes that his limited measures will lure China back to the negotiating table. It was only when he was on the point of introducing his package in the legislature last time that Peking agreed to begin talking. Although the negotiations were ultimately unproductive, they did a great deal to clarify which issues China felt most strongly about, and this knowledge will govern future tactics. On this occasion Mr Patten has also confined himself to issues on which he is fairly sure of the legislature's support.

If China sticks to its refusal to negotiate, however, Britain and Hong Kong will be faced with more difficult choices. Mr Patten is under pressure from democracy activists to present his original package, which he himself has described as only a modest increase in democracy for the colony. But most members of the Legislative Council are pro-Chinese businessmen or see little point in antagonising Peking at this late stage. They would probably insist that his proposals should incorporate the sweeping concessions already offered to the Chinese, including a reduction of two thirds in the proposed electorate for 30 seats elected by business and professional groups.

Leading article, page 19

(Photograph omitted)

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