British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe's talks with Chinese leaders on the future of Hong Kong appear to have made progress. Senior leader Deng Xiaoping told Sir Geoffrey on Wednesday what other Chinese leaders have repeated time and again: that ''the present system in Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years following China's recovery of sovereignty in 1997.'' (Britain's lease on most of Hong Kong expires in 1997.)
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Mr. Deng and Sir Geoffrey ''had agreed on important matters concerning Hong Kong'' during their 100-minute talk in the Great Hall of the People. But British and Chinese officials were tight-lipped as to what ''important matters'' agreement had been reached on. A joint press release on Sir Geoffrey's April 15-18 visit said only that both sides had agreed ''valuable progress had been made.''
British sources have frequently said they were working toward an agreement that would be acceptable to the people of Hong Kong and to the British Parliament, not to any kind of deadline. The Chinese have said openly that if agreement cannot be reached by September, they will publish their own unilateral plan for the post-1997 administration of the island colony.
One reason for Chinese haste, Western observers here say, is that an agreement on Hong Kong could serve as an example for Taiwan, with which Peking is seeking peaceful reunification, and which so far has rebuffed every overture for talks, trade, and personal contacts.
Twelve rounds of talks have been held between China and Britain since last July. Sir Geoffrey's visit came before the 13th round, which will be held in late April.
In his usual salty manner, Deng stressed that while great changes had taken place in China since Sir Geoffrey's previous visit in 1978, ''compared with our splendid goals, they are just a beginning.''
Chinese policy toward Hong Kong had to be seen in the context of Peking's overall goal of achieving economic modernization by the end of this century - that is, of achieving living standards which might be described as ''relatively well off.''
But China's more ambitious goal is to ''reach or approach the economic standards of the advanced countries in 30 or 50 years,'' Deng said.
The implication was that Chinese leaders recognize Hong Kong's importance in helping Peking to achieve its goals, and that they would do everything possible, including a certain amount of ideological somersaulting, to see that they do not kill a goose already laying so many golden eggs.