Li Peng, the Chinese Prime Minister, speaking after the NPC closed its final session, said the new preparatory work committee would be established 'at the appropriate and necessary time' and that its only purpose was to ensure a smooth transition when Hong Kong's sovereignty reverted to China in 1997.
However, China has previously made clear that, if Mr Patten proceeds with his political reform proposals, Peking will start laying plans to scrap the system Britain leaves behind. The new body could draft laws to be implemented after the takeover, or even become a replacement for Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco).
Speaking at a rare news conference, Mr Li said it was up to the British side to take the initiative about restarting the Sino-British dialogue over Hong Kong. 'It is up to the one who tied the knot to untie it . . . The ball is now in the British court.'
In a lengthy answer, Mr Li seemed to want to allay immediate fears in Hong Kong about China's plans, while also stepping up the pressure on Britain not to begin the debate in Legco on Mr Patten's reforms. He hinted that it would be at this point that Sino-British trade and business links might suffer, and that such a move would close the door on talks.
A British official said Mr Li's comments appeared in keeping with the latest Chinese strategy of creating unease in Hong Kong, but avoiding specific threats. These might damage business confidence in the colony, and could attract unwelcome international attention at a time when the new US administration is still working out its China policy, Peking is bidding for the 2000 Olympics and China is seeking to rejoin the Gatt trade grouping. Peking still believed it was possible to divide British ministers from the Governor, and was seeking to target British companies in the hope that they might press the Government to overrule Mr Patten and make concessions to China.
In a message that coincides with the Governor's arrival in Brussels today, Mr Li said China attached great importance to trade relations with all European Community countries. Big Sino-British projects, including a Shell joint venture, GEC's interest in power-station work, and British bids for the big Canton metro project, were still welcome, the Prime Minister said. 'But if the present situation should continue to develop and further deteriorate, I'm afraid we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of economic co-operation being affected to different degrees.'
Sino-British diplomatic relations have been deadlocked since three weeks ago, when Mr Patten decided to publish his draft bill after Britain and China failed to agree terms for restarting talks. Originally, Hong Kong officials said the package would be tabled in Legco by the end of March, but this has now been put off until after Easter, to keep open the possibility of resuming negotiations. With Legco in Easter recess until 21 April, Mr Patten has a breathing-space. He will consult John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, on his strategy during a two-week visit to Britain, starting at the weekend. One consideration will be opinion polls showing disappointment in Hong Kong at the breakdown of 'talks about talks' with the Chinese.
Today a new batch of advisers to China, drawn from Hong Kong, will arrive in Peking to be appointed formally to their new role. The group includes several of Hong Kong's top businessmen and, in a public relations coup, China has also appointed the first Western adviser, Sir David Akers-Jones, a former top civil servant and acting governor in the colony who lives in retirement in the New Territories. Sir David has been fiercely criticised for agreeing to join the body, which is seen as another attempt by China to undermine Mr Patten's authority.