BRITAIN, in a make-or-break mood, is threatening to break off its talks with China about the future of Hong Kong if Beijing refuses to give ground on the extension of democracy in the colony.
The 16th round of negotiations is set for Nov. 19-20, and Prime Minister John Major warned China on Nov. 10 that any more foot-dragging on its part could provoke Britain into deciding unilaterally to order direct elections to the Hong Kong legislature.
On Nov. 13 there were signs that China might be preparing to give ground on fringe matters, such as lowering the Hong Kong voting age from 21 to 18. But official reports reaching London from Beijing on Nov. 14 indicated that on the key question of increasing the number of directly elected seats in the territory's Legislative Council (LegCo), China's heels were firmly dug in.
The increased tension followed talks last week at 10 Downing Street between Mr. Major and Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, who has been trying to smooth the way to an orderly hand-over when the colony and its 6 million inhabitants revert to Beijing's control in 1997.
In the toughest British statement after years of wrangling, Major said Mr. Patten was considering plans for free elections to the LegCo in 1995, regardless of China's wishes.
``I do not believe, and nor does the governor, that an agreement is worth any price, although we will do out best to get one,'' Major said at a London news conference on Nov. 14.
Chinese officials in London said Britain was bluffing about taking unilateral action, but sources close to Patten said he was fed up with Beijing's prevarications.
Municipal elections are due to be held in Hong Kong next year, and these will be disrupted if the Britain-China negotiations continue to mark time.
During his London visit, British officials say, Patten advised Major to indulge in some brinkmanship because the Chinese often give ground at the last minute when faced with a threat.
Part of the British strategy is to warn China that intransigence on Beijing's part would be likely to stir up opposition among Hong Kong pro-democracy groups.
The point Britain is trying to ram home is that when elections for the LegCo are held in 1995, those elected will be required to serve in their posts for four years.
Patten calls this Britain's ``through train'' demand, meaning that successful candidates in the 1995 poll must be guaranteed the right to hold their seats for two years after China begins to exercise sovereignty. So far, Beijing has refused to endorse the ``through train'' concept.
Patten's London visit coincided with a full review by the British Cabinet of the state of the Hong Kong talks. Major's warning to China represents government policy and his aides were at pains to indicate that the threat to break off talks was no mere bargaining ploy.
There is an element of high risk in the new British stance. So far China has threatened to overturn any change in the Hong Kong political system that does not have its prior approval.
Hong Kong plans to build a new airport and develop its port facilities, and needs China's cooperation. A breakdown in the London-Beijing negotiations would probably wreck both projects. Beijing has rejected the plan and accused Britain of draining its colony's coffers before the takeover.
Another problem Britain must take into account is the likelihood of Chinese sanctions against British companies if the London authorities decide on a go-it-alone policy on extending democracy.
British trade with China amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Business leaders in London and Hong Kong are reported to have reminded Major that when France decided to sell fighter jets to Taiwan, China ordered economic retaliation.
British government officials say they are encouraged by ``small but distinct'' signs of flexibility on China's part.
Yet a senior British member of Parliament said there was a ``distinct likelihood'' that in giving ground on small issues Beijing was ``just spinning out the negotiating process.''
``Maybe they will allow next year's municipal elections to go ahead, but will draw the line at the following year's Legislative Council vote.''
``They are reluctant to see democratic institutions flower in Hong Kong at a time when they are denying their own people any say in government,'' he added.