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)

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