Patten warns time running out on HK: Britain to proceed with reforms unilaterally if talks fail

CHRIS PATTEN, the Hong Kong Governor, yesterday warned China that Sino-British negotiations on electoral reform in the colony must be concluded in 'weeks rather than months'.

Mr Patten made it clear he would unilaterally proceed with the process of democratic reform if the talks failed, and he made an emotional plea to Hong Kong's people and parliament to support his stand to defend the colony's way of life in any clash with the mainland. 'If we are not prepared to stand up for Hong Kong's way of life today, what chance of doing so tomorrow?' he asked in a policy speech to the Legislative Council (Legco).

Mr Patten said there was a bottom line Britain could not breach in the talks if Hong Kong's elections in 1994 and 1995 were to be credible: 'We are not - not - prepared to give away our principles in order to sign a piece of paper.' But he also detailed important concessions that Britain has already made. These significantly dilute Mr Patten's original proposals to widen the franchises of voters who elect Legco's members. Pro- democracy activists said Britain had already made too much of a climb-down.

Martin Lee, head of the United Democrats of Hong Kong, said he was 'extremely surprised why a believer in democracy, such as the Governor, would make such a huge concession without reference to the Legislative Council, without refence to the people of Hong Kong'.

The Governor's speech was designed to convince China that, after 12 rounds of talks, time for a negotiated agreement was running out. If this tactic does not now flush out reciprocal concessions from Peking, Britain will abandon the negotiations and introduce electoral reform legislation in Legco. This decision will be made when Mr Patten meets John Major and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, in London next month.

The robust conclusion of the speech was aimed at bolstering public support for such tactics. Public opinion, while backing moves for democracy, tends to waver when Hong Kong looks like bearing the brunt of a collapse in Sino-British relations.

If talks break down, Legco members will be under pressure from the mainland to reject the reform plans.

China's response to these tactics may be to lambaste the Governor for setting a deadline, but then to offer some slight compromise at the eleventh hour, thus forcing Britain to extend the talks.