Springtime for one lobbyist among many: Governor Chris Patten visits the US to try to prevent Hong Kong from suffering an economic squeeze

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The Independent Online
STANDING in the warm spring sunshine outside the Capitol, Chris Patten said: 'I would guess that for the Governor of Hong Kong and the chief executive of the SAR (the special administrative region the colony will become after China takes over in 1997), April or May most years is going to be a good time to be in Washington.'

With the cherry trees in bloom and the weather neither too hot nor too humid, this is indeed the best time of year to come to the American capital. But it is also when the annual legislative battle over renewing Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status for China - the trading privileges which have fuelled the country's economic boom and its dollars 18bn ( pounds 11.46bn) trade surplus with the US - gets going. The Governor was in town to prevent Hong Kong's economy, which has prospered along with China's, being squeezed in a confrontation between the colony's two main trading partners.

Despite the high stakes, not to mention accusations from Peking that his visit was 'internationalising' a bilateral issue between Britain and China, there was no doubt that Mr Patten was also enjoying a temporary escape from the feverish atmosphere of Hong Kong and the constant abuse he gets from Chinese-controlled newspapers there.

It made a pleasant change to be riding around Washington in a stretch limousine, lunching with the likes of Barbra Streisand and being praised by everyone from President Bill Clinton down for his courageous stand on democracy. Whether his message on MFN was getting across was another matter.

'I'm learning a lot about the American legislative process rather quickly,' he admitted after another session on Capitol Hill. His many discussions with legislators made it clear that no Democratic administration will be allowed to renew MFN unconditionally, as President George Bush did and as the Governor was urging.

The question is whether a compromise can be found which will avoid too much damage to Hong Kong. On this issue, Mr Patten is just one lobbyist among many.

An example of the other pressures on the White House came on Thursday, the day Mr Patten left for further meetings in New York. The New York Times reported that the administration had further evidence of Chinese missile sales to Pakistan, and speculated that this would affect the MFN debate.

China has spent dollars 1bn making its own point in recent weeks, buying 21 aircraft from Boeing, nearly 14,000 cars from Detroit and dollars 200m worth of oil equipment. Americans have been made aware that some 150,000 jobs depend on MFN. Both the administration and Congress seem anxious to avoid a showdown over it this year.

A deal will probably be struck giving China 12 months to show 'significant progress' in the main areas of concern, including unfair trade practices and indiscriminate missile sales as well as human rights. Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, is being sent to Peking next week to discuss human rights gestures the Chinese could make.

The administration is understood to have begun talks with China more than a month ago. Among possible concessions are allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect Chinese prisons; relaxing curbs on religious freedoms and resuming the Sino-American dialogue on human rights. All this is aimed at keeping the MFN question in Mr Clinton's hands rather than those of Congress, and should be sufficient to allow renewal by the 3 June deadline. The problems are likely to arise next year: unless China has made the kind of changes its leaders might see as a threat to their existence, Congress may push ahead with a Bill imposing conditions which Peking would be sure to reject. Among them is a demand that it should strictly adhere to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's future.

Mr Patten told the National Press Club that trying to use MFN to secure the colony's way of life would have the opposite effect: 'You certainly can't help Hong Kong by hurting our economy.'

As long as no one is left in any doubt about the effect MFN withdrawal would have on Hong Kong, Mr Patten will be satisfied with his trip. But the next time the cherry blossoms come out, he may find himself in Washington once more, struggling even harder to make himself heard.