The credibility of the Government and of Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, has been stretched thin by their willingness to postpone Mr Patten's plans to broaden the franchise in forthcoming elections in Hong Kong and keep talking to the Chinese, who have yielded nothing in nine months of meetings.
Earlier this month, just before Mr Patten returned to London for a Cabinet-level review of the negotiations, Peking hinted at faster progress. This was enough to avoid an ultimatum from the British side, but in the following talks last weekend the Chinese dug in their heels once again.
On Tuesday the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, summoned the Chinese ambassador in London, Ma Yuzhen. The message, as one source put it, was that 'when we talk about intensifying the negotiations, we mean it'.
If no progress is made during the next round of talks in Peking tomorrow and Saturday, Britain's negotiator, Christopher Hum, is likely to be brought back to London for consultations. Mr Hum, an assistant under-secretary in the Foreign Office, took over for the last round after the previous negotiator, Sir Robin McLaren, was sidelined with back problems.
The Chinese attitude at last weekend's meeting surprised the British side and left it with diminishing options. 'We don't know what to think,' said one official. 'They may have been seeking to test our new representative, but we had been led to expect that Peking was willing to get some of the less controversial issues out of the way, so that we could focus on the main problems.'
Mr Patten, who insists that his plans will have to be put to Hong Kong's legislature early next year if the election timetable is to be met, said earlier this week: 'You can't go on and on and on for ever.'
He is coming under increasing pressure from some of his staunchest supporters in the Legislative Council, such as Martin Lee, leader of the United Democrats.
'I really don't know what game both sides are playing,' Mr Lee said in a radio interview yesterday. After 'so many, many rounds of fruitless talks', he saw no point in prolonging them.Reuse content