JLG smooths bumpy road
By LINDA CHOY
Despite occasional hiccups, Chinese and British negotiators thrashing out the details of Hong Kong's transition have managed to produce several major accords on issues that had been long stalled.
A glance at the balance sheet of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group (JLG) in 1996 saw the striking of a long-overdue agreement on the Container Terminal Nine project, the granting of six personal communications systems licences, as well as an accord on the handover ceremony on June 30 this year.
The progress made in the past 12 months has been attributed to the pragmatism shown by both sides in the face of a pressing timetable.
This spirit of pragmatism was demonstrated by the endorsement by the Chinese side of the localised Official Secrets Act, despite Beijing's anger over what it called the unilateral move by Britain to try to push through laws on subversion and treason.
The latest round of talks also produced agreements on the extension of the New Lantau Bus Company's contract and three franchises for the new airport at Chek Lap Kok.
Earlier, the two sides also reached agreement on the handover ceremony to be held on June 30.
In mid-November, China and Britain agreed to entrust the handling of the massive Exchange Fund to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority after 1997, with the account being scrutinised by an international audit firm.
Top negotiators are also promising a quick accord on the right of abode.
In an apparent bid to reassure the community, Chinese representative Zhao Jihua has emphasised that the two sides have only to settle minor differences affecting a small group of people.
Recent developments in Hong Kong have helped reassure Beijing.
Preparations for the nomination of the 400-member Selection Committee saw more than 5,700 candidates step forward.
The race for the post of chief executive, which many feared would be contrived, was conducted in a relatively open manner, with late entrant and dark horse Tung Chee-hwa running in a clear winner.
In addition, the rush for the seats in the provisional legislature has attracted 130 candidates, 34 of whom sit on the Legislative Council.
Even motions put before Legco from time to time to condemn the Chinese authorities are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to win majority support.
These developments go a long way towards explaining why Beijing did not completely dig its heels in over the Subversion Bill.
Diplomatic gestures signalled Beijing's protest but Chinese officials clearly believed it was not worth jeopardising other negotiations for a bill which seemed to many to have little hope of getting through the legislative process intact.
As a last resort, the National People's Congress standing committee reserves the right to declare invalid any laws it perceives to be in contradiction with the Basic Law.
The priority for China has been to ensure that there would be as few obstacles as possible to mar a smooth transition.
One critical area has been arrangements for the deployment of advance People's Liberation Army troops in the territory to pave the way for the arrival of the Chinese garrison on July 1.
At the end of the JLG plenary session in Hong Kong in November, differences still remained over the size of the detachment.
China is also anxious that the British do not pre-empt the future SAR by undertaking large-scale projects without prior consultation. The thorny issue still confronting the body is how to clear the log-jam of problems remaining on localisation, adaptation of laws and security, and the legal and economic arrangements to be finalised with foreign countries.