Time for sincerity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 January, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 January, 1996, 12:00am

WHEN the visit by Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind was first announced, it was said he would be coming for talks with the Governor and Legislative Councillors. Given the relationship between Legco and the previous Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, the second half of that agenda seemed to have been given too much prominence.

Legislators felt Mr Hurd regarded them as unimportant and had snubbed them on previous visits. When he did come to the council and meet them in closed-door session, many failed to turn up, claiming it was a waste of time. That may have been a publicity stunt by legislators with an eye to last year's elections, but it was also an effective demonstration of just how low the British Government's image had fallen here.

Mr Rifkind is determined to avoid a similar fate. The meeting with Legco is now billed as one of the main purposes of the Foreign Secretary's visit. To ensure the maximum impact, it is to be a public session. Most legislators are likely to turn up for a bit of media exposure, although the canny may still decide there is more publicity to be won from rudely boycotting the meeting. The public is too sophisticated to be fooled by the antics of either side.

Mr Rifkind's appearance will be seen for the public relations stunt it is. It is an attempt to show Britain in a positive light and demonstrate a commitment to Hong Kong few still believe in. With just 18 months to go before the handover, Britain is trying to present a dignified presence, despite a growing sense of its irrelevance.

Legislators can steal the show by demonstrations of disrespect, but they cannot gain credibility except by putting the Foreign Secretary on the spot with tough questions. Those questions, however, will be an opportunity for Mr Rifkind to show the cynicism is unfounded. It may be Britain's last chance to do so.

If he answers questions with the usual empty formulas and evasions he will have squandered it. But some straight-talking honesty would not go unappreciated. There is still a lot Britain can do to secure a smooth transition - by granting visa-free status to Special Administrative Region passport holders, for instance. Let us hope he, and the government he represents are still up to the task.