Sino-British thaw over Hong Kong

EU-Asia summit: China 'recognises need to build confidence' in colony a s trade dominates agenda at expense of human rights
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John Major yesterday went out of his way to defuse tension with China over Hong Kong after meeting the Chinese Premier Li Peng on the eve of the Prime Minister's highly sensitive visit to the colony this weekend.

Mr Major went into his 45-minute meeting with the Chinese Premier only hours after Peking's top official in the colony had warned the British Government against "stirring up trouble". Zhou Nan, head of the New China News Agency and Peking's de facto ambassador there, said: "We sincerely hope the British can carry out their obligations and fully co-operate ... and stir up no further trouble for Hong Kong's smooth transition."

But Mr Major made it clear after the meeting with Li Peng that he detected a marked improvement in relations between Britain and China over the past few months.

Mr Major did not disguise that there is still no convergence between the two governments over the key issues for Hong Kong democrats of a Bill of Rights and the future of the now democratically elected legislative committee for Hong Kong (Legco). Mr Major said he had told the Premier "that Hong Kong's success has been founded not only on economic success but on the rule of law and that continuity and stability are a very important part of a successful transfer in 1997."

Yesterday's statement at a New Year celebration in Hong Kong reflects the continuing irritation of Chinese officials at the Governor Chris Patten's decision three years ago to introduce democratic reforms without Peking's agreement - and the Government's stated view that an elected Legco should continue. But after his talks in Bangkok, where he is attending the Asia/EU economic summit which opens later today, the Prime Minister said that Li Peng had shown strong signs that he recognised the need to build confidence in Hong Kong in advance of the handover. Mr Major and other British officials were encouraged by confirmation from Li Peng that China would not send its own officials to govern Hong Kong after 1997.

Mr Major raised what he himself called the "sensitive" choice of chief executive to run the colony after the handover. He said that while Li Peng had not given any indication of when the choice would be made, he had shared his aspiration that the post would be held by someone "acceptable to the people of the colony".

John Major will have to tread the delicate path, on what will probably be the last visit of a British prime minister to the colony before the handover, of calming intense anxiety among many of the colony's inhabitants while not worsening relations - including trade relations - with Peking.