Rifkind faces wall of silence from Qian

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, yesterday had what will almost certainly be their last face- to- face meeting before the hand over of Hong Kong, but failed to make any significant progress in resolving anxieties about the future of the colony under Chinese rule.

Mr Rifkind said he "detected a defensiveness with regard to the human- rights question", and when the British side raised concerns about the imprisonment of dissidents in China, and the suppression of Tibetan Buddhists, Mr Qian "chose not to respond".

The one-and-a-half-hour meeting took place on the margins of a conference of Asian and European leaders in Singapore, and this evening the Foreign Secretary will travel on to Hong Kong at a more than usually anxious time for both the Government and the colony. Mr Rifkind may yet have to cut short his visit if he is summoned home by the Conservative whips for a Commons vote.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, democratic politicians and organisations including the Hong Kong Bar Association have expressed outrage at recommendations by the Peking-backed Preparatory Committee which would repeal human-rights guarantees.

"These are important matters which could do grave damage in Hong Kong," said Mr Rifkind. "I have expressed our view that these measures are very foolish and very unwise."

A British official suggested earlier in the week that the Chinese might be persuaded to step back, and that there was "still something to play for".

"We have seen in the past that a number of issues raised at meetings of this kind sometimes do not get an immediate response, but do have an impact on Chinese policy over the weeks and months thereafter," said Mr Rifkind. "I can't be certain that will apply in this case but the exercise has been useful in the past and I hope it will be on this occasion."

A spokesman for Mr Qian, however, denied that such matters were up for negotiation. "This is a closed matter so there is no defensiveness whatsoever."

The one glimpse of a concession came in a discussion of the legislative body which will eventually be formed under the Chinese during 1998. Many in Hong Kong have assumed that this would be similar to the recently elected Provisional Legislature - a tame and undemocratic body, composed only of individuals sympathetic to Peking. Mr Qian said during the meeting, however, that anyone would be allowed to stand for election to it including, by implication, some of Peking's harshest critics in the Democratic Party.

Mr Rifkind has tried to use the Singapore meetings to build up international pressure on China not to interfere with Hong Kong after its reversion at the end of June. The French, Japanese and German foreign ministers have all raised the subjects in bilateral meetings with Mr Qian, and British sources speak of "an insurance policy" in the event of a crackdown after Hong Kong's reversion.

"After 30 June, we will not be the sovereign power," said a senior source. "We can't send a gunboat or a task force and our means of leverage are limited, but one of them is international pressure."