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Patten wants US to go easy on Peking: Hong Kong's Governor will urge Washington to keep China's trading status, writes Raymond Whitaker

THE Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, should find he has quite a lot in common with President Bill Clinton when they meet in Washington today. Mr Patten, who will be 49 on 12 May, is a little over two years older than the President. They missed one another by a similar space at Oxford - while Mr Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, Mr Patten, freshly graduated, was starting out on the political road via the Conservative Party.

Whatever their rapport however, and Mr Clinton's known sympathy for what Mr Patten is trying to achieve in Hong Kong, they have to satisfy vastly different constituencies. Mr Patten has already staked out his mission: to persuade Mr Clinton, the administration and Congress that failure to renew China's most favoured nation (MFN) trading status unconditionally would cost Hong Kong 70,000 jobs and halve its economic growth, forecast at 5.5 per cent this year. Briefing US business leaders before his departure, he said removing MFN was a 'double-edged' weapon that would damage US investment in Hong Kong worth dollars 7bn ( pounds 4.45bn).

Mr Patten arrives on his first visit as Governor just as the debate over America's China policy reaches a pitch. Mr Clinton must decide by 3 June whether to renew MFN for another year, and on what terms. Hong Kong's message is being echoed by US businessmen, but in the past week the President has also received China's other leading hate figure, the Dalai Lama. The exiled Tibetan religious leader, who later told the National Press Club that Peking was practising a form of 'cultural genocide' by ensuring that Chinese settlers now outnumber native Tibetans, sides with those who expect a Democratic President to take a stronger line with Peking than his predecessor.

The anti-China lobby's priorities are reflected in a bill just tabled in Congress, which sets out the conditions that should be applied to China's trading status next year. For the first time it requires the President to certify that China has made 'significant progress' not only on such issues as repression in Tibet, the use of prison labour to make goods for export, and weapons sales to rogue nations, but also in adhering to the 1984 Sino- British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong. China, engaged in tough negotiations with Britain on this subject, reacts angrily to any sign that the matter is being 'internationalised': if MFN can be described as a sword, Mr Patten will tell his hosts that the bill is more like a bludgeon.

Peking's attitude constrains the Governor to present his 10- day trip to Washington and New York as purely a nuts-and-bolts trade mission. Expressions of support for his political reform proposals will not be unwelcome, but he cannot be seen to solicit them. If Mr Patten can also get backing for his viewpoint on MFN, the unspoken message to China will be that his democratic credentials obtain him a hearing where Peking cannot venture, and that it would pay to treat him more gently.

According to one Washington lobbyist, however, the Governor may have more luck with the former than with the latter. Mr Clinton is highly unlikely to withdraw MFN status this year, but he is being watched by a Democratic party disappointed by other retreats from foreign policy pledges. He is more or less obliged to provoke an early confrontation with China over the terms for next year's renewal, because anything less will upset his supporters and give wings to the bill in Congress.

The President will be happy to acclaim his fellow baby- boomer as a champion of democracy, but the exigencies of Washington politics may leave Mr Patten feeling that his friends' attempts to help have made his position even more difficult.