Joint objectives

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 December, 1997, 12:00am

The continuation of the Joint Liaison Group until 2000 was a by-product of the Joint Declaration negotiations, a gift by Beijing in return for Britain reluctantly allowing the bilateral body to establish a base in Hong Kong far earlier than London would have preferred.

At the time, no one gave any thought to what role the JLG would play during its final 2.5 years. Nor was this considered during pre-handover discussions, as there were so many more urgent issues to tackle. Only last spring was it finally addressed, with former Governor Chris Patten insisting the body should play a high-profile monitoring role. That prompted a furious response from Beijing, which sees the JLG as having little, if any, remit beyond the handover.

In keeping with the general improvement in relations since July 1, that dispute has faded away and will not be allowed to overshadow this week's meeting. Britain's new team leader Alan Paul has quietly redefined the JLG. Mr Paul sees his job as reflecting the wishes of the Hong Kong public, and he has conveniently decided that the community wants the British team to adopt a low profile.

Far from continuing Britain's pre-handover policy of urging the international community to monitor the changes to electoral arrangements, Mr Paul's announcement that London will not be sending an official delegation to observe next May's polls should discourage others from doing so. It may also create problems for European parliamentarians who planned to constitute themselves into a monitoring team.

But it is not only Britain which has been offering gifts to improve the atmosphere. Beijing's announcement that it will submit reports on human rights in Hong Kong to the United Nations removed the one major dispute still remaining between the two sides. Even if London protests about the new electoral arrangements this week, it will only be doing so for form's sake.

The new mood in the JLG is shown by the unprecedented joint press conference the two team leaders will hold today. Until now, these have always been held separately because of the numerous issues which divided them. But now that the JLG is seen by Britain as a tool for improving bilateral ties, a joint appearance is symbolically important. And China, which sees no significant role for the JLG to play, is only too happy to oblige.