LONDON — BRITISH diplomats are bracing themselves for a tough encounter April 22 when they resume talks in Beijing on the future of Hong Kong.
Chris Patten, the governor of the British colony, announced on April 13 a break in the five-month deadlock over how Hong Kong should be ruled up until the hand-over to China in mid-1997.
Sources close to Governor Patten worry the Chinese will use two related negotiating techniques in their efforts to erode the British position. China will try to spin the talks out for as long as possible, the sources say, and simultaneously press Britain to retreat from a published plan to extend democracy in Hong Kong.
Diplomatic analysts forecast a sharp clash of wills between the negotiating teams. Gerald Segal, senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, believes Britain will have few cards to play against the Chinese, only one of which is strong: a threat to end the dialogue and equip Hong Kong with a democratic constitution.
"The Chinese will challenge Patten to break off the talks, but Britain could decide to call their bluff," he says. "If it does so, [Beijing] will be faced with the precedent of democracy on its doorstep, which is the very thing it most wants to avoid."
Echoing remarks by Patten, a British diplomat said the break in the five-month procedural deadlock was "a victory for common sense." He denied there had been a "cave-in" by Britain.
The official spoke of "balanced concessions." He said China had dropped its objection to Hong Kong representatives being part of the British team at next week's talks, while Britain had accepted that the same officials would be there only as observers.
But Britain has also agreed to a delay in the implementation of a constitutional blueprint for holding elections for the colony's Legislative Council and Patten has had to accept that he will not be present at the Beijing talks.
Since last October Chinese officials have hurled personal abuse at Patten for publishing the blueprint that they say violates the 1984 London-Beijing agreement for returning Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, and the Basic Law, China's own mini-constitution for the territory post-1997.
The blueprint would steadily increase the number of democratically elected members of the legislature, most of whom are appointed by the governor.
Seasoned diplomats consider that the price Britain will be asked to pay if it wants a smooth transition to the hand-over to China is significant dilution of the Patten democracy plan.
Sir Percy Cradock, who advised former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, on Hong Kong policy in the 1980s, said: "For there to be progress, there will have to be some retreat from the present reforms. The Chinese will erect what they call a `wall of principle' and demand concessions. Britain will have to try to extract concessions in return, and that will not be easy."
Britain, however, will not be on its own when it tells China that Hong Kong must be allowed to progress toward democracy before the hand-over.
Martin Lee, leader of the United Democrats, Hong Kong's strongest political party, said April 13 his supporters were "solidly behind a commitment to democracy."
Britain may also turn to the United States for pressure on Beijing during the talks, Dr. Segal says.
"I think behind-the-scenes US pressure on [Beijing] was a major factor in breaking the deadlock," he says. "The Chinese know that the Americans are likely to withhold most-favored-nation status from them if they refuse to countenance democracy in Hong Kong."
There are indications that, having managed to get the talks with China back on track, Britain will attempt to use its connections with the Clinton administration to bolster its negotiating stance.
Patten is planning a visit to Washington in May and, British officials say, will advise the State Department on the outcome of next week's four-day session of Beijing talks.