Rifkind visit to sound out Hong Kong's mood

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, arrives in Hong Kong this evening with few illusions of securing any key agreements with China when he moves on to Peking later in the week.

Although Sino-British relations moved from cold to tepid following the October visit to London by China's foreign minister, Qian Qichen, both sides are cautious about how to proceed after a six-year period in which relations have been strained following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Mr Rifkind is ''not going to Peking with expectations of great breakthroughs'', said a British official. ''There's no bag of sweets ready to be given out.''

The visit has been prefaced with the usual flurry of speculation about whether Britain is ready to sacrifice the colony's interests in favour of its longer-term relationship with China and whether this means a return to the old days of kowtowing.

Equally predictably there has been a rash of reports about how China will insist that the Governor, Chris Patten, has no role to play in the ceremonies to mark the handover of power next year and there have been other stories about China's demand that he be told to cease raising issues that the Chinese government does not wish to discuss, such as political reform and human rights.

One official involved in preparations for the talks dismissed all this as ''low-level chit-chat''. However, there is little doubt that China's strategy is to isolate the Governor and seek a more cooperative response from the Foreign Office, which has traditionally been more sensitive to China's views.

In a New Year message, Lu Ping, the most senior Chinese official handling Hong Kong affairs, said that Britain was showing a more co-operative attitude these days and expressed the hope ''that this commitment [to co-operation] will not be restricted to words, but put into practice''.

This is China's coded language for telling Britain it wishes to hear no more talk about political reform in Hong Kong, nor does it want the colony's government to make plans without fully consulting Peking.

Officials in Hong Kong are stressing the significance of Mr Rifkind coming to the colony before going to Peking, ''so he can get a first-hand impression of the mood of the community before going to China'', as one put it.

While in the colony, he will hold the first-ever public meeting with legislators, a move quickly dismissed by the outspoken legislator Emily Lau, who said this was little more than a gimmick to stimulate interest as ''most members regard the British as irrelevant and that's why, in the past, in these closed meetings, hardly anybody turned up''.

In China, where Mr Rifkind will meet Mr Qian, and possibly the Prime Minister, Li Peng, he will want to continue discussions on the nature of the ceremonies for the handover of power on 1 July 1997. He will again try to get China to clarify its intentions on the right of abode and citizenship criteria for Hong Kong residents after 1997. The lack of clarity on these matters is undermining confidence in the colony and helping to provoke the high level of emigration.

Among a clutch of other issues high on the British agenda is the desire to seek China's agreement for the award of a contract to build the colony's ninth container-port terminal. China objects to the contract having been awarded to a consortium headed by the British controlled conglomerate Jardines, which it sees as being a political ally of Mr Patten.