Patten prepared to go it alone with reforms

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 July, 1993, 12:00am

HONGKONG could still be handed over to China in a strong and wealthy state even if Britain had to go it alone on the territory's constitutional reform plan, Governor Chris Patten said yesterday.

Mr Patten made the remarks only hours after Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd concluded his whirlwind visit to Beijing, where he and Beijing leaders agreed to speed up talks for a smooth transition of the political structure.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Mr Patten said the British side was prepared to see negotiations involving some give and take.

''But you can't give away principles. What you can do is negotiate for different routes to achieve them,'' he said on the first anniversary of his governorship.

His packed programme yesterday began at a 7.30 am breakfast with friends, meeting Mr Hurd during a three-hour stopover, and finished at 2.30 am this morning after observing an operation to catch illegal immigrants trying to cross the border.

When asked if Hongkong could still continue to prosper even if Britain had to go its own way on political reforms, Mr Patten said: ''Absolutely right.'' Although tangible results on the constitutional talks had yet to emerge from Mr Hurd's meetings with Chinese leaders, including Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, he had arranged to meet Mr Qian again in New York in September to review progress.

However, Mr Hurd had not left Beijing empty-handed.

Beijing's endorsement of the airport-related Central-Wan Chai reclamation plan and a date for the next Joint Liaison Group session were reported after his meeting with Mr Qian and President Jiang Zemin.

Mr Hurd's unscheduled talks with Mr Jiang were a sign that his visit had made some headway.

At a press conference in Beijing, Mr Hurd described the tone and atmosphere of his talks as positive.

''It was entirely forward looking, and from my point of view, and I hope his, the meeting was well worthwhile,'' he said.

''We need to focus, and we did focus today on the functional constituencies, and on the election committee.

''I certainly hope that by the time we meet again in New York there will be substantial progress. I cannot be certain of that. That's one reason why we agreed to meet again.'' Mr Hurd said: ''The proof of whether this visit was worthwhile or not comes later in what actually happens on the ground in the practical work.

''We are engaged in a big effort on these fronts, a big effort preparing for the transfer of sovereignty.'' ''Britain has no hidden agenda in this. I made this clear to China. We have no thoughts or aspirations or wishes to interfere in how China governs itself . . . we are concerned that the agreements about Hongkong should be carried fully through.'' Later, Mr Patten pointed out that Hongkong could still live without reaching an agreement with China on the 1994/95 electoral arrangements.

''What's happened since last October . . . the Hang Seng Index is 20 per cent higher; the Hongkong economy is doing astonishingly well.

''There are problems with the Chinese economy which might affect us. I very much hope and expect that China will be very much able to cope with inflationary problems.

''We have come through last year with a great deal of resilience, self-confidence and with Hongkong people discovering that it is possible to do with what they said they wanted to and to stand up for Hongkong without being catastrophic.

''Let's be realistic . . . if nobody stands up for Hongkong you don't have 'one country, two systems', you have 'one country, one system'.'' Despite this, the British side was still engaged in negotiations with China because ''we will do better, and I believe the best outcome would be one negotiated settlement without abandoning our principles''.

Mr Patten said: ''The worst solution would be a negotiated settlement in which we abandoned our principles. What would be the point of having elections at all if the elections were, in a sense, a rig.'' He said he believed the constitutional matter was the most difficult of the issues left unresolved between Britain, China and Hongkong.

But with good will, the two sides could still get a settlement, although it would not be easy.

''Our objective is still arrangements in 1994 and 1995 which are fair, open and acceptable to the people of Hongkong.

''Our objective is still to have clear criteria for those legislators who are elected in 1995 and wished to travel the so-called through-train to 1999.

''I hope we can achieve them in negotiations. We could have had an end to the talks already if we simply abandoned our principles. But would that really be conducive to political stability? I think people who suggested that are kidding themselves.

''What we need is an outcome which remains firmly rooted in the principles that we have set out.'' He described as absurd a position where candidates for the 1995 polls could not tell their constituents whether they would still be around until 1999.

''And would it really be the first act of the Chinese sovereign to throw some legislators out of the Legislative Council,'' he said.

''We know what would happen if that is the case. We know what the uproar would be.

''We know that it wouldn't be conducive to political stability. We know, in addition, that in the subsequent by-elections, the same candidates for those who supported them would win by an even larger majority.'' He predicted ''some difficult times ahead''.

''[This is] not because we are necessarily awkward people on either side, but because the tasks we were engaged in are uniquely difficult,'' he said.

''Anybody who thinks that it will be a completely smooth ride until 1997 is kidding himself. How could it be? ''I am not being excessively pessimistic. I am not inviting a headline 'terrible problems ahead'. I am just stating the obvious.''