Peking puts HK visitors on the spot

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Anson Chan, the deputy to the Governor of Hong Kong, and four other officials have been forced into the embarrassing position of paying a visit to China tomorrow without knowing whether their status as senior leaders of the colony's administration will be recognised.

At first it appeared as though they would only be received as private individuals.

However, after a day in which the Hong Kong government had tried to play down the status of the visit, an announcement was made last night by China's official news agency which mentioned Mrs Chan's official title of Chief Secretary.

In a highly unusual move, the Hong Kong government issued this Chinese statement as a press release even though it was far from clear whether the delegation, whose other members were not mentioned, would be received as official representatives of the Hong Kong administration. Embarrassingly, the Hong Kong government had earlier accepted China's invitation on the assumption that its representatives were not going to be recognised as an official delegation.

China has allowed the ambiguity of their position to remain and will have noted its success in manipulating the Hong Kong government into a position where China has the last word on the status of the participants sent from the colony. If the talks go well, from the Chinese point of view, they may be described as official.

However, they will only involve officials with whom China wishes to have dialogue and will definitely exclude the Governor, Chris Patten, who is frozen out of all discussions on the transfer of power.

The usually cool and composed Mrs Chan almost lost her temper yesterday when repeatedly asked by reporters about the capacity in which she would be visiting China.

She angrily said she was not prepared to compromise the talks she would be having with Lu Ping, China's most senior official dealing with Hong Kong affairs, by answering questions about "what capacity I go up" to China.

Doubts about the wisdom of making the trip delayed a decision until the last possible moment. However, after the green light was given yesterday the Hong Kong government launched a furious attempt at damage limitation.

Mr Patten sought to play down the issue by describing the controversy over the visit as "baffling" and said it was "ridiculous" for Mrs Chan to be seen as anything but the "the leader of Hong Kong's service".

Nevertheless, no official was prepared to admit that China has succeeded in forcing the administration into talks on a basis in which the Hong Kong participants are shorn of any official standing.