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Secrecy pact starts Hong Kong talks

A SINO-BRITISH official handshake, a rare sight in recent months, yesterday launched the start of what is likely to be weeks of very difficult negotiations seeking agreement on how to run Hong Kong's next elections.

At the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Peking, both Sir Robin McLaren, the British ambassador, and Jiang Enzhu, the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister, pledged their sincerity in embarking on talks.

After a meeting of more than three hours, it was clear they had agreement for now on one issue at least - not to divulge how the first meeting had gone. Sir Robin said: 'We have had a full morning's work, and we got down to work.' He said he was 'not going to characterise the discussions with adjectives, as you will be asking me tomorrow for new adjectives'. A Chinese spokesman said: 'I have nothing that I can tell you.' The first of what should be several rounds of talks is likely to last until Sunday.

In Hong Kong, the colony's Governor, Chris Patten, who has been lambasted by the Chinese since October, when he unveiled plans for modest democratic reform, told the Legislative Council (Legco) that there would be 'no hidden agreement'. Negotiations would be kept confidential, but he would listen closely to councillors' views, and Legco would vote on any agreement reached.

Mr Patten said Britain would try its best to reach an 'honourable' conclusion. Asked what would constitute such an agreement, he said any electoral arrangements would have to be designed 'to produce a fair outcome rather than a pre-ordained outcome'.

Mr Patten also said clarification was needed of who would qualify to ride the 'through train' - agreement that the Legco elected in 1995 would stay in place after sovereignty reverts to China in 1997. Legco members should not be 'turfed off half way through', said Mr Patten. China has said it will hold a veto over who stays on the 'train'. It has a feeling of near loathing for two popularly elected Legco members, Martin Lee and Szeto Wah. The leading lights of the United Democrats party in Hong Kong, they helped co-ordinate the colony's protests at the time of the Tiananmen Square shootings.

Now that the talks have started, China would seem to have most to gain, because it can always use negotiations as a delaying tactic. Mr Patten's and Britain's nightmare scenario would be to find themselves in early June with little substantial progress on reaching agreement, and no easy way of exiting from talks.

Over the next few weeks Hong Kong's nervous population will see brinkmanship, media manipulation, stock market somersaults, and threats by either side to walk out of negotiations. There may also be an eventual compromise. And then that new package of proposals will be put to Legco - which will be anxious to show it is not going to be a rubber-stamp body.