Peking tries sweet reason over HK

THE battle for the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people entered a new phase yesterday: China adopted an unexpectedly reasonable tone in reaction to the warning by the colony's Governor, Chris Patten, that negotiations on electoral reform had weeks rather than months to be concluded.

The stock market had been bracing itself for a vitriolic onslaught from Peking in response to Mr Patten's annual policy speech on Wednesday, but instead ended the day setting yet another record.

With the likelihood of a breakdown in negotiations looking stronger, both sides were keen to stress that it was the other that was being unreasonable. In Peking, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said China regretted that the British side continued to hold its position after 12 rounds of talks. A 'wide gap' remained, but China was committed to pushing ahead and hoped Britain would take a 'constructive attitude'.

Peking is concentrating on portraying Mr Patten as the one seeking confrontation by setting a deadline. The public in Hong Kong is likely to be susceptible to suggestions from China that an agreement on electoral arrangements could be possible were it not for Mr Patten's attempts to put pressure on China.

For his part, the Governor yesterday, emphasised the costs and risks that China was posing for Hong Kong in being so intransigent. As he spelt out on Wednesday, delays on agreeing technical issues in the Joint Liaison Group could leave the colony in a 'legal vacuum' for the months after sovereignty changes hands in 1997. Delays on agreeing the airport financing and on the new container terminal would damage Hong Kong and southern China commercially.