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Patten's reform plan passes vital Hong Kong test

THE political reform plans of Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, passed a crucial test early today when the colony's Legislative Council (Legco) approved the first part of his proposals after an intense 10-hour debate.

Mr Patten is expected to move quickly to introduce his main reform package, which is bitterly opposed by China. Hong Kong sources said they expected him to announce today that he will publish his second bill tomorrow, for debate starting on 9 March.

That is likely to mean the final breakdown of attempts to reach a compromise with Peking on Hong Kong's future. China has already said it will reverse the Governor's reforms and hold fresh elections when it takes over control in 1997.

Defeat in the legislature for the first, less controversial part of Mr Patten's proposals would have meant humiliation for him, and, almost certainly, the end of any attempt to change the way the colony is run before the handover to China. The council's members said before last night's session that they expected the measures to pass, however.

Attempts by conservatives and pro-Chinese members of Legco to postpone the debate, which would have had the effect of killing the reforms, or to water down the provisions, were all defeated.

Despite opposition from China, which resists any decision-making powers for Legco, the proposals being voted on last night did not require any great show of boldness. Most of the changes were to the composition of Hong Kong's district boards and local councils, whose powers are extremely limited. The main provision was to lower the colony's voting age from 21 to 18, which is already the situation in both China and Britain.

Legislators will face much tougher choices next time, however. Mr Patten is expected to put the proposals as he outlined them in October 1992, dropping the concessions offered during 17 fruitless rounds of talks with the Chinese last year.

The most controversial element of the 1992 package was the proposal to create nine new legislative seats to represent the main commercial and industrial sectors, in which almost all of Hong Kong's 2.7 million workers would have a vote. China regards this as an attempt to expand the number of popularly elected seats, in breach of previous undertakings by Britain.

Mr Patten's critics claim that enacting his plans will lead to a late flowering of democracy in Hong Kong, only for China to stamp it out when it takes control in just over 40 months' time. One legislator, Chim Pui-chung, told his colleagues last night that 'being a lap-dog for China . . . is better than being a running dog for the British' - but they heeded calls by liberals to resist Peking's pressure. A pro-democracy legislator, Cheung Man-kwong, said: 'Being a lonely fighter is bound to be painful, but the fruits to be enjoyed by Hong Kong people will be sweet.'

(Photograph omitted)