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Tough time for Patten on first China visit

THE GOVERNOR of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, faces a rough ride today when he meets Chinese officials to discuss his plans for a sharp increase in democracy in the colony.

Arriving yesterday for his first visit to China since becoming Governor in July, Mr Patten said he would be 'very interested in hearing any of the proposals my Chinese colleagues have to make'. He has been irritated by Peking's habit of using its press mouthpieces in Hong Kong to attack his plans without making any counter-proposals.

His first opportunity to hear China's objections directly will come today, when he meets his host, Lu Ping, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Office. Mr Lu, who has just been made a full member of the Politburo, sent his deputy to the airport yesterday to meet Mr Patten.

Peking has been on its guard since Britain decided to send a top-level politician to Hong Kong as Governor. Its suspicions were heightened when Mr Patten outlined his plans for the transition to Chinese rule in 1997 in a speech earlier this month. The new Governor stretched his powers to the limit to widen the franchise in the 1995 Legislative Council elections.

China, however, has claimed this violates the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong, as well as the Basic Law, which will govern the running of the territory after 1997.

In the past week it has rejected the colony's financing plan for a new airport, revised to meet earlier objections, accused the Governor in a Peking magazine of having a 'bad attitude', and placed a report in one of its Hong Kong newspapers that the Prime Minister, Li Peng, had accused Britain of taking far more out of Hong Kong since 1840 than it would leave behind in 1997.

In his turn, Mr Patten has said he would not sacrifice his democracy proposals in exchange for the new airport. If there was no agreement with China, Hong Kong might have to consider completing the project on its own.

The new Governor's style of discussing his plans openly, and of seeking public support for them, is diametrically opposed to Peking's approach. China was informed in advance of what Mr Patten was going to say in his policy speech, but believes he should have discussed his proposals with Peking before announcing anything. Although time has been left in his schedule tomorrow for a call on a 'senior leader' - most likely Mr Li - this probably depends on the outcome of the talks with Mr Lu.

The conservative Prime Minister, who has lost much of his control over the economy to reformists more in tune with China's supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, is understood to be directing Hong Kong policy.