Patten's plan challenges Peking

IN A cleverly judged inaugural speech, which is calculated to put China on the defensive, Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, yesterday announced wide-ranging proposals for more democracy for the colony.

Mr Patten's proposed package for constitutional reform avoids direct confrontation with Peking, but uses to the limit the freedom given him within the Basic Law, the mini-constitution drawn up by China to cover the running of Hong Kong after the handover in 1997. His plans challenge Peking to come up with a response which does not lay the Chinese government open to accusations of interfering in Hong Kong's affairs before 1997, or threatening the territory's prosperity.

The initial reaction was a statement from the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency, China's unofficial embassy in the territory, accusing him of 'an extremely irresponsible and imprudent act'. The proposals should not have been announced without further consultation with China, said a spokesman. This is standard rhetoric, and Mr Patten will be waiting to see how today's issues of Peking-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong treat his speech.

Officials in Hong Kong and Britain regard it as encouraging that, although the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, briefed his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, about the governor's plans in New York last week, Peking's mouthpieces in the colony have so far kept silent. Later this month Mr Patten will make his first visit to Peking, after the conclusion of the 14th Communist Party congress, for talks on Hong Kong.

The thrust of the constitutional changes centre on the method of election of the 60 seats in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco) at the 1995 elections, and the new composition of the Executive Council, the highest policy-making body.

In the legislature, where the first direct elections took place only last year, the Basic Law says only 20 members will be directly elected in 1995. Britain has virtually given up hope of persuading China to increase this number, so rather than challenge it, Mr Patten is seeking to broaden the electoral base of the other seats.

A batch of 10 will be chosen by an Election Committee which will itself be composed of elected local politicians. Some 21 other seats are filled by so-called 'functional constituencies' which represent business and employment groups.

Most radically, the remaining nine seats, which under the Basic Law must also be elected by functional constituences, are to be elected by nine new constituencies which are defined so that they cover the entire working population. This gives a potential electorate of up to 2.7 million people for those nine seats, compared with 110,000 eligible voters in the existing functional constituencies, and may well be seen by China as being as little removed from more direct elections.

The new Executive Council will be a non-party political body, with no joint membership with Legco. In a decision sharply criticised by the directly elected Legco members, Mr Patten has opted for an advisory body of distinguished experts and spurned the elected politicians. A government-Legco committee is to be formed to allow a channel of communication between the executive and the parliament.

Most of the first half of Mr Patten's speech was devoted to the economy, demonstrating his belief that Hong Kong's prosperity is as important a guarantee of its future under the Chinese as its political arrangements.

The Governor said he had sought to find 'a point of balance' between Britain's arguments for an increased pace of democracy and China's insistence on compliance with the Basic Law. 'The pace of democratisation in Hong Kong is - we all know - necessarily constrained. But it is constrained, not stopped dead in its tracks.'

Yesterday's package, Mr Patten said, was consistent with the Basic Law and was put forward as proposals which were to be discussed with China. When he arrives in Peking, however, he is likely to face an uphill task in winning mainland acquiescence. It may also cause more delays in agreeing an airport financing package.

Martin Lee, chairman of the United Democrats, which holds a majority of the directly elected Legislative Council seats, said: 'These proposals come a little late and do not go far enough . . . there is still a big question about what he will do if China says no.'

(Photograph omitted)