Patten readies for end-game on HK democracy: Governor to lay groundwork to keep public opinion on his side if talks with China stall

WHEN Chris Patten, the Hong Kong Governor, quoted a Chinese poem at a Chinese National Day reception last week, the response of a high-level mainland official in the colony was that the Governor should understand more of Chinese history and Confucius's sayings besides Chinese poetry.

If the poem did not please his hosts, nor will the Governor's annual policy address tomorrow to Hong Kong's parliament, the Legislative Council (Legco). But Mr Patten will have taken into account the lessons to be learnt from Chinese negotiating tactics over the years, and mainland reaction to his modest proposals, put forward in his policy speech a year ago, to increase democracy in Hong Kong.

At the risk of incurring Chinese ire for revealing anything at all about the Sino-British negotiations, Mr Patten is likely to spell out tomorrow some details of the concessions the British have already made behind closed doors in Peking during 12 rounds of talks about how the 1994 and 1995 elections should be run.

It is no secret that the talks have achieved little for the colony. With Hong Kong's leading democrat, Martin Lee, already warning that Britain is 'on the brink of total capitulation' to Peking, confirmation of the British compromises will be a double-edged sword. Mr Patten presumably hopes the sharper side of the message will be that, if China will not entertain these significant compromises, the price of agreement may just be too high. Tomorrow, Mr Patten will start laying the groundwork for keeping Hong Kong public opinion on his side if the talks break up without success.

A year after they were unveiled, some sort of end-game about the future of Mr Patten's electoral reform proposals has finally begun. Neither he nor Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, after his fruitless talks four days ago in New York with his Chinese counterpart, are officially setting deadlines. But an effective deadline has presented itself. Mr Patten will be in London from 8 to 11 November to address a conference. He is expected to meet John Major and Mr Hurd, and to attend a Cabinet committee meeting at which, barring some significant movement by the Chinese, Britain is likely to decide unilaterally to table a package of electoral reform proposals to Legco. It would then be up to Legco to make amendments, probably against a background of threats by Peking that it would scrap any system when sovereignty reverts to it in 1997.

Of course, Mr Patten knows that Chinese negotiators never reveal their bottom line until the eleventh hour. Earlier this year it was Mr Patten's decision to gazette, or formally publish, the draft bill that led to the two sides starting talks. This time the British negotiating team may have to be heading for the door before Peking shows any indications of compromise.

But when Mr Hurd said the 'significant gap' between Britain and China had not been narrowed by his meeting with Qian Qichen, the possibility of failure became much starker. Three rounds of talks are likely before Mr Patten's London trip. This time the British argument about pressure of time has more of the ring of truth; the local elections are due in less than a year and if Legco is to take the hard decisions, the bill is likely to be in committee for months, not weeks.

The differences between the two sides boil down to what proportion of legislators will be chosen by democratic or semi-democratic methods. British concessions have only been offered in return for commitments on the so-called 'through- train', whereby there will be clear criteria for those elected in 1995 to stay on Legco after 1997. But so far the Chinese have refused even to talk about the 'through-train'. A simpler illustration of the gulf that remains is that, even though the voting age in both Britain and China is 18, Peking has so far refused to agree that the voting age in Hong Kong to be 18 rather than 21.

Mr Lee, who is head of the United Democrats party, yesterday thought public opinion would be behind Mr Patten if he tabled a bill in Legco. The bill could either be the original proposals, or could represent the final British position in the talks, both of which would be almost certainly amended by Legco.

Mr Lee warned that Mr Patten might have to lobby hard for something like either version to be passed, because of the large number of pro-Peking legislators. 'China could get from Legco what it failed to get from the British (negotiating) team,' Mr Lee said. The voting split on contentious issues would be very narrow, particularly as China can be expected to lean heavily on wavering legislators.