Rifkind fails to get China talking to Patten

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The Independent Online


Malcolm Rifkind wound up his three-day visit to Peking last night saying that both Britain and China were determined to "look forward, not back" over the question of Hong Kong.

After a long meeting with President Jiang Zemin, the Foreign Secretary welcomed the Chinese leader's "repeated emphasis" that China "was not going to intervene in the affairs of Hong Kong", when sovereignty reverts to the mainland next year.

Despite the more constructive atmosphere, Mr Rifkind's attempts to persuade Peking to resume contact with the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, yielded no response.

Chinese leaders also remained determined to scrap the colony's elected Legislative Council (LegCo). The foreign ministry spokesman, Chen Jian, said: "I think this is a closed case. That is the Chinese position and that will not change."

Both Britain and China stressed that Mr Rifkind's visit had built on a steady improvement in relations over the past few months. "If we differ, we are differing in a friendly way and seeking to minimise these differences rather than maximise them," said Mr Rifkind, who described his meeting with the Chinese President as "long and substantive". Mr Jiang spoke of the "momentum" of Sino-British co-operation.

That co-operation is not, for now, extending to Mr Patten. The question of Peking resuming a dialogue with the Governor was raised by Mr Rifkind in meetings with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, and in yesterday's session with President Jiang. Britain, alarmed at a recent "haemorrhaging of confidence" among Hong Kong people, is trying to persuade Peking that fresh contact with Mr Patten would boost Hong Kong's morale. The Chinese side offered no encouragement. "They did not really respond," a British official said.

The British maintained there was still hope. Mr Rifkind said: "[President Jiang] emphasised the importance of dialogue. Dialogue of course means dialogue between all on the Chinese side and all on the British side who have responsibility for these matters." Peking has refused to have any direct dealings with Mr Patten since the autumn of 1992 when he unveiled his political reform package. Mr Rifkind reiterated that "only by [Mr Patten's] full involvement can we ensure the success that we all require. I am sure the Chinese side will wish to reflect on that."

In the meantime, it is now expected that the much-delayed ninth container terminal (CT9) project will move ahead, after Mr Qian told the British side that China would accept any agreement reached by the companies involved. A compromise may emerge whereby the Jardine group, which China abhors as a political ally of Mr Patten, would drop out of the CT9 consortium in return for an alternative stake in one of the other forthcoming container terminal projects.

The Chinese played down Mr Rifkind's claim to have reached an agreement on right of abode in Hong Kong after 1997.

"I think this is an exchange of views ... between the two foreign ministers instead of a concrete negotiation," Mr Chen said. Mr Qian's statement that "all residents now with permanent residence status in Hong Kong will continue to have residence status after 30 June 1997" still leaves many specific questions to be settled. But there were positive signs that such negotiations could now yield results.

China would seek a solution "realistically, flexibly and in a relaxed manner", Mr Chen said. "This represents a political willingness." Agreement was also reached on contact between the Hong Kong government and the Chinese- appointed Preparatory Committee and on the issue of post-1997 Hong Kong Chinese passports.