Peking seeks to break Hong Kong impasse

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Hong Kong

China has begun the new year by calling for a "new dawn" in Sino-British preparations for the return of Hong Kong's sovereignty to China next year.

Lu Ping, the most senior Chinese official dealing with the colony's affairs, delivered this message in an interview published yesterday by the official New China News Agency. As ever, the head of Peking's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office was studiously ambiguous in indicating whether or not the deep freeze in relations between Britain and China had begun to thaw.

He spoke approvingly of next week's visit to Peking by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, stating that Britain had given a commitment to co-operate with China but he followed this by saying, "we hope that this commitment [to cooperation] will not be restricted to words, but put into practice".

This is the usual view expressed by Chinese officials in recent months when referring to Britain. It indicates that the door is open for better relations but will be closed if Britain pursues policies, such as promoting democracy in Hong Kong, which are anathema to China.

China insists on dealing directly with the Foreign Office in London, rather than with Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, who is blamed for being "unco-operative" and making what China views as provocative political reforms.

Mr Lu is a master of ambiguity, using most of his public utterances to offer both carrot and stick. In yesterday's interview, the biggest carrot was his assurance that the 150-member Preparatory Committee, set up by China last week, would not try to take over the running of Hong Kong before 1 July 1997.

This assurance was given in the face of suggestions that China would need a shadow government up and running before the transfer of power. Mr Lu, regarded as a moderate by Britain, is using his authority to dispel this idea.

However the composition of the committee, personally chosen by the senior Communist Party leadership, makes it clear that China will have no truck with people in Hong Kong who are not seen as loyal.

The Hong Kong members of the committee are dominated by business leaders and long-term "friends" of Peking or newly loyal supporters of China. The committee has no Democratic Party member or other candidates who have consistently won the largest share of the popular vote.