CHINA and Britain appear to be headed for a new row over democracy in Hong Kong as talks between the two sides near collapse.
Tomorrow, a year after proposing reforms that promised political change in Hong Kong and embittered Beijing, Gov. Chris Patten will deliver his second speech as Britain's last administrator before the colony reverts to Chinese rule in 1997.
The closely watched address coincides with mounting frustration over lack of progress in negotiations on Hong Kong's future and pressure on Mr. Patten to resolve the dispute that has dragged on through five months of talks.
Amid what analysts describe as a ``bleak'' outlook for breaking the stalemate, Patten is expected to outline British concessions in hopes of drawing reciprocal offers from an intransigent Beijing. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd also failed to break the deadlock in a weekend meeting with his Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen in New York.
Facing bitter opposition from Beijing and eroding support in Hong Kong, Patten will hold a strategy session with Prime Minister John Major in London in November. Without progress, some analysts say, Britain may push its reform package forward in Hong Kong's legislative council, even though passage would be difficult and it is likely to be watered down through amendments.
``I don't see how they can reach an agreement unless the British capitulate,'' says Martin Lee, a Hong Kong legislator and a leader of the democracy forces in the colony. ``How can Patten surrender completely?''
Another Hong Kong analyst is more pessimistic: ``It might come down to Britain deciding to go it alone and China doing what it wants to do in 1997.''
Propelling Patten is growing pressure among Hong Kong democracy activists, whom China wants to shut out after regaining the colony. Despite expected heavy lobbying by Beijing, many democratic legislators maintain that they can eke out a close victory over pro-Beijing forces when the proposals come up for a vote.
China's legislative allies warn that Hong Kong faces dire consequences if Patten moves ahead with winning approval of his democratic reform plan. After several months of ferocious attacks from Beijing, and wild gyrations in the Hong Kong stock market, the governor formally introduced the measures in the Hong Kong legislature earlier this year. But he withheld final action pending the outcome of the talks.
His plan seeks to expand the electorate for legislative elections and make the government more representative. Beijing claims the change violates the agreement covering the turnover of Hong Kong and the post-1997 constitution known as the Basic Law. China's ruling Communists worry that political change in Hong Kong will ignite demands for reforms on the mainland.
While public opinion polls show that many in Hong Kong want talks to continue indefinitely, activists have been dismayed by British concessions that would significantly limit the franchise in some constituencies and the makeup of the committee overseeing elections in 1995.
Britain reportedly has offered to make further concessions if assured that legislators elected in 1995 would be allowed to serve beyond the turnover. China has insisted that is has the right to decide which legislators can stay beyond Beijing's return to power.
Last month, following China's failure to become host to the 2000 Olympic Games, the Chinese press republished a 1982 speech by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, in which he threatened to regain the colony before 1997 in the event of instability. Analysts say the move was aimed at quashing enthusiasm for political change.
``[The British] have already conceded too far,'' says Mr. Lee, an outspoken critic of the British negotiating position and also a vehement opponent of Beijing. ``Clearly they want to leave Hong Kong not in disgrace, but with honor. [Patten] will be judged a failure if he fails to give us democracy when they leave.''
Some Hong Kong politicians admit that contacts between Britain and China may again nose dive over political reform, but hope the two sides can continue to work together for a smooth transition. Concerns have grown that China will retaliate if the reform proposals move ahead. Several large projects are pending in the colony, including a new airport and container terminal. They have been stalled by China amid negotiations over the political plan, and cannot go ahead without Beijing's blessing.
Many activists contend that even if it pushes ahead with political reforms, China will not retaliate and intentionally ruin Hong Kong's economy.
``I think a lot of people have not prepared themselves for a deadlock,'' says Anna Woo, a Hong Kong legislator and supporter of the reform proposals. ``I think we must agree to disagree over certain things and then move ahead.''