TODAY, the Governor, Mr Chris Patten, faces his toughest challenge since announcing his political reform package in October. When he addresses the Legislative Council this afternoon, he will be expected to do one of two things: to announce that talks on democratic reforms between Britain and China are to go ahead or that he plans to proceed with gazetting the much-delayed electoral bill without China's blessing.
If Mr Patten believes he can address legislators as he did last Friday without a substantial announcement, he is in danger of making a grave miscalculation. There is growing impatience over the way the political reform issue is being handled. Each time publication of the electoral bill is delayed - it has already been put back four times - the more it appears as though Mr Patten is playing directly into the hands of Beijing. In the words of liberal legislator Mr Martin Lee Chu-ming, the impression is that Mr Patten is being led by the nose.
What Mr Patten says this afternoon will depend on how China responds to Britain's latest communique. Although the contents of that communique sent to the Chinese yesterday afternoon are secret, it is logical to assume that any breakthrough hinges on whether China can clarify its own position to the satisfaction of Britain. Should China respond unfavourably, Mr Patten will have to decide whether to authorise the gazetting of the bill. It is clear that both sides want talks to resume and that a major sticking point is China's reluctance to allow Hongkong representation on the British team. Mr Patten needs to stand firm in insisting it would be unthinkable for Hongkong not to have a say in talks affecting its future. China should appreciate that Britain has the right to decide on the membership of its negotiating team. As Mr Patten rightly pointed out the other day, he ''would not dream of giving lectures on who should be on China's team''.
If China agrees to Britain's demand to allow Hongkong representation, then the way will be open for talks to resume. However, if China's communique, which was received by the British Ambassador to Beijing yesterday morning turns out to be no more than another stalling tactic, Mr Patten will have to stand firm. His motto should be publish and be damned.
Should talks go ahead, it is not certain whether the Legislative Council will, as Mr Patten has until now insisted, have the power of veto over any deal struck between the sovereign powers. Earlier this week, the seeds of doubt were sown by the British Minister with special responsibility for Hongkong, Mr Alastair Goodlad, in a letter to legislator Mr Frederick Fung Kin-kee.
Mr Goodlad's letter bore all the hallmarks of diplomatic doublespeak. The views and interests of the people of Hongkong would be given full weight, it said. Legco decisions would be respected, ''providing that they are compatible with our international obligations''.
To the worried Hongkong ear, that ambiguous phrase bears the unmistakable creak of the Foreign Office going down on bended knee. Which obligations was Mr Goodlad referring to? The Joint Declaration or the diplomatic exchanges on the Election Committee which China insists and Britain denies were a binding agreement? Or did he mean the results of any deal reached over the next few months, with or without the input of Hongkong representatives.
Naturally, neither London nor Hongkong will admit that Mr Goodlad meant anything other than the Joint Declaration. Mr Goodlad's letter has sought to confuse rather than clarify Britain's position and has unhelpfully given the impression that there may well be a split between the Foreign Office position and the Governor's on political reforms.
The truth can only be guessed at. But perhaps Mr Patten's apparent willingness yesterday morning to go ahead with gazetting the bill in defiance of China, before Beijing issued its lunchtime communique which resulted in his plan being postponed, was alsoa move to forestall any Foreign Office backtracking on its previous tough negotiating stand.
Given his instinctive politician's sensitivity to public opinion, it may also have been a response to growing suspicions that he no longer has the upper hand in the negotiations with China or that he may have weakened in his resolve to push for democratic reforms. Whatever prompted his firm line, it seems to have had some effect. Mr Patten has shown that a tough stance works better than spineless capitulation. When he comes to address the Legislative Council this afternoon he will need to show the same firmness and resolve in pointing the way forward. Anything less simply will not do.