Peking scorns Patten's olive branch

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EXACTLY 1,000 days before China regains Hong Kong, Chris Patten, the Governor of the colony, extended an olive branch of co-operation to the mainland yesterday, only to have one Chinese official spurn his conciliatory gestures as 'merely words'.

In his third annual policy address, Mr Patten said that 'with a little biting of tongues on both sides' Britain and China could end the stalemate and start dealing with the work left to be completed before 1997.

He outlined a package of practical suggestions to improve co-operation, including a concession on official contacts with a Peking-appointed advisory committee.

Mr Patten's package of nine initiatives included pledges to provide support to the colony's first post-1997 chief executive, and full co-operation with Chinese military authorities over defence responsibilities.

On the contentious question of relations with the the Peking-appointed advisory body, the Preliminary Working Committee (PWC), he offered one policy change. Senior civil servants will still be banned from formally meeting the committee, but China was welcome to invite committee members to expert-level meetings of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group. 'If China thinks it would be a good idea to use PWC members then so be it,' Mr Patten said. Just over half the PWC's 57 members are from Hong Kong.

The governor added: 'It would be interesting to know what else, reasonably and honourably and sensibly, anyone else thinks that we should be offering. What else? And if that isn't enough, and if that is to be turned down and rejected, then I hope those who turn it down and reject it will be asked a few questions themselves.'

While the tone of the speech was measured, he left no doubt which side he blamed for the 'snail's pace' of Sino-British negotiations. 'Co-operation . . . is not a one-way street; nor is sincerity to be judged by whether one party always agrees with the other. That is not what the real world is like.'

In the real world last night, initial reaction from China did not seem to herald a breakthrough. A spokesman from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Peking said: 'We have to see what the Hong Kong government does. We need practical actions to show sincerity.'

Zhong Guoxiong, a deputy director of the Xinhua news agency in Hong Kong, said Mr Patten's proposals were 'merely words' to be translated into 'concrete actions'.

Even before the widely leaked speech was delivered, the former Conservative Party chairman was being lambasted for plans to 'introduce welfarism vigorously', a reference by Chinese officials to yesterday's increased spending plans for the elderly, sick and disabled.

Such is the stalemate in Sino-British negotiations that it is not even clear how, or where, discussion of yesterday's initiatives for co-operation would take place. At its last meeting the JLG failed to engage properly on any contentious issues.

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