Britain Presses Talks With China to Settle Hong Kong's Future

THE British government has given Chris Patten, the newly appointed governor of Hong Kong, three months to prepare detailed proposals on the territory's future up to and after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Before Mr. Patten can produce a Hong Kong political blueprint he must break the current deadlock in negotiations with Beijing. But the new governor's own officials are conceding that Patten, who was appointed after he lost his parliamentary seat in Britain's April general election, will meet stiff resistance from China.

The three-month deadline has been ordered by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd with Patten's full agreement. It is intended to instill a sense of urgency into negotiations with the authorities in Beijing, which have bogged down during the last two years. Britain also wants to persuade the 6 million people of Hong Kong that it is determined to secure maximum democracy and capitalist enterprise in the territory after 1997.

After a two-day visit to Hong Kong, Mr. Hurd said July 27 he wanted negotiations to be sped up on one of the most contentious issues between London and Beijing - the building of a new airport to serve the territory after sovereignty passes to China.

Britain wants the airport at Chek Lap Kok to be built before 1997, but China has complained about the cost - $22.9 billion - and has used the issue to block British democracy moves.

Under an agreement struck between Britain and China in 1984, Hong Kong is supposed to remain a capitalist enclave for half a century after the hand-over. The London government wants to increase the number of democratically elected members of the Hong Kong legislature beyond the one-third already agreed by Beijing, but the Chinese are resisting.

Even before he arrived, the new governor was given a taste of China's hard-ball approach to negotiations. An official in Beijing said China would not deal with Patten if he appointed a member of the United Democratic Party (UDP) - the territory's most popular political movement - to his executive council.

In response, Patten instructed an official to reply that he, not Beijing, would determine the composition of the council. No decision has been made on his council members.

The post of governor traditionally has been filled by professional diplomats who appeared to revel in the trappings of their office and adopted a remote posture as the Queen's representative in a colony far from London.

Patten, who was chairman of Britain's Conservative Party until the April general election, has stunned his own officials with his hands-on, free-wheeling style.

A London Foreign Office source said: "His approach is totally different from his predecessor's. He does not write or like reading long memos. He prefers to use the telephone, and he has already been to many parts of the territory to see things for himself."

One Hong Kong official said: "He wants to make rapid progress and that means he is setting a frantic pace."

One thing Patten is not in a hurry to do: travel to Beijing before he has mastered the complexities of Hong Kong politics.

Martin Lee, leader of the UDP, has called on Patten to promise that one half of Hong Kong's legislative council will be democratically elected in 1995 and that the arrangement should continue until 1999 - two years after the hand-over.

For China this is a major sticking point. By agreeing to Mr. Lee's formula Beijing would be conceding that democracy had an entrenched position in Hong Kong's post-1997 constitution.

Chinese officials in the past have denounced the UDP as "subversive" because some of its members have called for democracy in China itself.

The source noted that if Patten decides to play his own version of hard-ball with Beijing he will enjoy an advantage that his predecessor lacked: He is a close personal friend of both Prime Minister John Major and Foreign Secretary Hurd.

"In rejecting what Mr. Patten says, the Chinese would be rebuffing the government in London," the source said.

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