CHRIS PATTEN, the Governor of Hong Kong, is to fly to London at the end of the month for a meeting with John Major, amid clear signs that Britain is losing patience with China at the slow progress of talks over political reform in Hong Kong.
The fifth round of negotiations finished yesterday in Peking with no indication that, after nearly two months of talks, the two sides have yet had any substantial discussions about arrangements for the 1994 and 1995 elections in the colony.
Sir Robin McLaren, Britain's ambassador in Peking and leader of the negotiating team, refused to be drawn on what had been achieved so far, but said: 'We haven't got an outcome, we are continuing with the talks.' Mr Patten, echoing the British Foreign Secretary's comments last week, said yesterday that he hoped there would be more progress at the talks.
Mr Patten's London visit, which is due to take place from 30 June to 2 July, was described by officials yesterday as routine. They said meetings with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other ministers would provide a chance to take stock of how the talks had proceeded.
However, this will also be an opportunity to decide what strategy to adopt if the talks continue to drag on through the summer with no real progress. For the British, this could mean either walking away from the negotiating table and plunging Sino-British relations into renewed crisis, or making big compromises on Mr Patten's political reform proposals.
By announcing Mr Patten's visit, Britain has signalled to China that it wants to see the start of serious negotiations in the sixth round of talks, to be held from Wednesday to Friday of next week. Diplomatic negotiations with the Chinese normally begin with weeks of discussions about 'principles', but the British side needs some indication of whether Peking is serious about seeking agreement.
The London talks will have to assess whether China is simply using delaying tactics. Sir Robin will take part, as will Michael Sze, Hong Kong's Secretary for Constitutional Affairs. The presence of Mr Sze will underline Mr Patten's insistence that the Hong Kong members are full participants in the British negotiating team.
Mr Patten is under pressure from the colony's democrats because of the lack of progress in the Sino-British talks. He originally said he wanted the electoral reform bills passed in the current session of Hong Kong's parliament, the Legislative Council (Legco), which ends on 21 July. That timetable has fallen by the wayside, and September is now a likely cut-off point for legislation. Any agreement with China has to be put to a vote in Legco.
Dismay in Hong Kong at the lack of progress comes at a time when there is still optimism that China is adopting a 'business-as-usual' approach to more routine matters. The Sino-British Joint Liaison Group will meet in full session next week for the first time since December. No breakthroughs are expected, but a return to sorting out the administrative details of the transfer of sovereignty in 1997 was welcomed.