Patten seeks help at home: The Hong Kong Governor is in Britain to discuss his next move

CHRIS PATTEN, the Governor of Hong Kong, arrived in Britain last night for a two-week stay, during which he will consult John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, on the next move in his battle of wills with China.

Still ringing in his ears will be the words of the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, who warned this week that 'it is up to the one who tied the knot to untie it . . . The ball is now in the British court.' On the same day the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament, approved the establishment of a 'working body' on Hong Kong, which could become a parallel administration to Mr Patten's before the colony is handed back in 1997 and might replace it immediately afterwards. Mr Li gave no hint how or when it would be constituted, saying merely that this would be decided 'at the appropriate and necessary time'.

Yesterday, in what is seen as another move to undermine Mr Patten's authority, China formally appointed another batch of Hong Kong 'advisers', including Sir David Akers-Jones, a former acting governor. 'I will do what I can to help the Hong Kong people at this very important time in their history,' he said in Peking. 'I would be failing in my duty if I were not to help.' He denied he was being disloyal to Britain: 'My loyalty is to Hong Kong and the people of Hong Kong, and of course I am British and have not lost my patriotism for Britain.'

All the same, the timing was unfortunate. The annual session of the NPC became a forum for attacks on Britain and Mr Patten after the Governor, deciding that 'talks about talks' with China were getting nowhere, formally published draft legislation to implement his proposals for elections in 1994 and 1995, for which he has set a July deadline. Yet Peking still remains reluctant to close the door completely on negotiations. The final straw, senior Chinese figures now say, would be to begin debate on the reforms in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco), a body that Peking believes should have no more independence than the NPC.

Apparently heeding these warnings, Mr Patten has not tabled the bill, which his officials had said would be done by the end of March. Legco is in Easter recess until 21 April. Now that the NPC has adjourned, the Governor and his good friends Mr Major and Mr Hurd will have to decide whether the conditions are right for another attempt to start talks with Peking. They will take into account the considerable disappointment in Hong Kong at the last breakdown and the fact that opinion polls show less support for Mr Patten than he might expect.

The Governor believed talks should not proceed unless Hong Kong had equal representation with Britain at the negotiating table. China, which insists that Hong Kong's future should be settled bilaterally between London and Peking, wants one negotiator on each side, with everyone else designated as 'advisers'. If Britain decides to give way on this point there is the danger that China might go on to demand that the right to decide on reforms should be taken away from Legco, which Mr Patten would find unacceptable. But China has lately been silent on the matter, in private as well as in public.

By adopting Chinese tactics of choosing his ground and sticking to it, some believe that Mr Patten has managed to confuse and divide his opponents. The rather mixed signals coming from Peking are said to betoken a split between hardliners who want him out and those who, in the words of one source close to the deliberations, 'are uncomfortable with a state of confrontation because it creates problems with international perceptions, which are increasingly important to China'.

The Governor, who had talks in Brussels this week, goes to Washington early in May to meet President Bill Clinton. He will be seeking support while trying to head off any US trade sanctions that would damage Hong Kong, and it might help to focus minds in the United States as well as China if the Legco debate were in full swing by then. The temptation to press ahead is reinforced by the alternative: becoming bogged down in 'talks about talks' with the Chinese, in which they do their utmost to drag things out and erode his position. Even if formal negotiations ensue, which would send hopes in Hong Kong sky-high, the chances of compromise are small.

As a British source put it: 'One can argue that the best thing would be to go ahead with the debate and put up with the Chinese reaction. But once we do that it will be out of our hands. Legco could well water down the proposals in a manner China would find hard to reject, putting the ball back in its court, but nobody knows.'

Mr Patten is due to take a few days off over Easter before sitting down with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, but with such crucial choices before them he is unlikely to enjoy much leisure.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there