Patten lashes `sick' plan for Hong Kong

Infuriated Governor lambasts plans for puppet assembly. Stephen Vines reports

Hong Kong -Britain has lashed out at Peking over its plans to appoint a new puppet assembly for Hong Kong. In an interview with The Independent, the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, said appointment of the legislature is "stomach-turning".

On the eve of a special event organised by China to select members of an assembly to rival Hong Kong's Legislative Council, Britain has challenged the Chinese to seek international arbitration to determine the legality of its group.

Using some of the strongest language by the Government since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, yesterday accused his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, of breaking a pledge last April not to establish a rival legislature before the handover of power in July. He called China's actions a "serious set-back for the development of representative government in Hong Kong".

While Britain was challenging China to determine the legality of its legislature at a body such as the International Court of Justice, Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, urged Peking to hold meetings of its council in the colony and face a High Court challenge to its legality. Today, 400 members of a selection committee will gather in the border town of Shenzhen to choose the rival legislature's members.

Mr Pattern told The Independent: "The actual procedures that we're going to be obliged to witness tomorrow are so stomach-turning. Here we will have members of this appointed echo-chamber, nominating one another, choosing one another, voting for one another.

"The average tennis club runs its affairs in a more dignified way. We also have a position where the people who were defeated in the [1995] Legislative Council elections are seeking to get into this body by the back door," he added, pointing out that leading pro-Peking politicians had vowed not to gain office in this way, yet were putting their names forward for selection.

"There's one simple fact," the Governor said. "Chinese officials don't want to have as many democrats in the Legislative Council as the people of Hong Kong regularly elect."

Mr Rifkind called in the Chinese ambassador, Jiang Enzu, on Thursday to issue the arbitration challenge and tell him Britain expected the Provisional Legislature to be rapidly replaced by "a substantive legislature constituted by genuine elections ...".

In a move to put further pressure on China, Britain also vowed to report every six months to Parliament on Hong Kong developments until 2000, when the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, responsible for Hong Kong transitional issues, is wound up. The report will carry a special emphasis "on the protection of human rights in Hong Kong" and its findings will be forwarded to United Nations human rights monitors.

All these moves will infuriate China. In a first response, China's spokesman from the New China News Agency (NCNA) in Hong Kong said Mr Rifkind's challenge to the legality of the Provisional Legislature was "groundless". Before the statement was issued Mr Patten said: "What on earth do Chinese officials think an international treaty means?" he asked. "An international treaty governing Hong Kong's civil liberties does not mean that come the first of July Britain can walk away from Hong Kong and wash its hands of responsibility ... there is a continuing moral commitment by Britain."

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