Patten seeks to allay HK 'deal' fears

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The Independent Online
THE Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, will seek to allay fears of a secret deal between Britain and China on the colony's future when he addresses a special session of the Legislative Council (Legco) today.

The politically sensitive stock exchange closed at a record high yesterday amid indications from all sides that talks could soon resume between Britain and China over democratic development in Hong Kong. Mr Patten, who delayed a visit to Japan while 'talks about talks' continued in Peking, promised earlier this week to make a statement on the discussions with the Chinese. He is likely to explain that publication of the draft legislation on political reform is to be further delayed while there is still a chance of talks.

The Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, yesterday told visiting Hong Kong businessmen that China and Britain should 'sit down and talk' on the basis of the previous agreements between the two countries over Hong Kong. The British ambassador in Peking, Sir Robin McLaren, who has led the recent contacts with Chinese officials, said he hoped arrangements could be made for the resumption of talks. They have been at a standstill since October, when Mr Patten first announced plans for a modest increase in democracy in the colony.

In Hong Kong there is a widespread feeling that a dialogue should restart, but an equally strong conviction that the colony does not want to return to the days when deals about its future were done secretly between London and Peking. Yesterday the Foreign Office insisted that there was 'no question' of Mr Patten or Legco being cut out of decisions about the way Hong Kong is governed. The Governor and the colony's Executive Council were fully involved in developing policy, including policy for the hoped-for talks. Hong Kong officials would be members of the British team. If any understanding was reached, it would be recommended to Legco, but the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, had made clear that it was up to Legco to decide.

Where there could be differences between London and Hong Kong, however, is over how long to continue behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Chinese. Mr Patten is likely to be pressed today on what will happen if talks start to drag on with no sign of agreement, threatening the July target for new electoral legislation. As a gesture of goodwill, the Hong Kong government has already delayed by three weeks the formal publication of the draft legislation which, under the original timetable, would by now have been under consideration by Legco.

Since launching his proposals for electoral reform, Mr Patten has always said he was open to negotiations, but any alternatives must be fair, open and acceptable to the Hong Kong people. What has become very clear in the past three weeks is that China's greatest aversion is to a Legco with the power to do more than simply rubber-stamp any deal. Mr Patten will have to reassure Legco today that it will be free to approve, reject or amend whatever is put before it. Some liberal legislators - who have up to now provided the backbone of Mr Patten's support in Legco - have called for the debate on the legislation to start immediately, whether or not Sino- British talks resume. They are concerned that China may use the talks as a delaying tactic.

Legislators will also want to know how closely informed they will be kept about any talks, and what role Mr Patten will play. During the past three weeks the Foreign Office and Sir Robin have appeared to be taking the lead, while Mr Patten remained unusually taciturn.