ANY report on the performance of Douglas Hurd and Qian Qichen at their meeting in New York this week would have to conclude with the classic schoolroom observation 'could do better'. The meeting cannot be written off as an unmitigated disaster.
The very fact that it took place at all is progress of a sort. Admittedly, the meeting was only the first of two required this year under the Airport Memorandum of Understanding. With only three months to go before the end of the year, it could hardly have been left much longer. However, the fact that the British Foreign Secretary and the Chinese Foreign Minister stayed in bilateral talks for 21/2 hours in the present political climate and managed - if Mr Hurd is to be believed - to avoid polemic throughout their 'useful and workmanlike' discussions is a sign the two men could also have done a little worse.
But judging by Mr Qian's brusque departure, the limited information vouchsafed by British and Chinese officials and the Foreign Secretary's uninspiring remarks a few minutes later, the meeting resulted in a stalemate. Polite stalemate, perhaps; but stalemate nevertheless.
No doubt Hong Kong will be thrilled to learn both sides 'agreed on the need to co-operate together on the practical need to reach agreement on a range of matters before 1997'. That is a step forward from the previous position in which both sides claimed to see the need to co-operate themselves, but accused the other party of not seeing it. But it is still no more than empty rhetoric. Action is what Hong Kong needs more of, not words.
Mr Hurd left it up to the Joint Liaison Group to deliver the goods. The record of that august, but clay-footed body to date suggests the delivery will be by surface mail, not by courier.
What Hong Kong now desperately needs, but no longer expects from the two sovereign powers, is genuine negotiation and serious effort to resolve their outstanding differences. But in place of a spirit of co-operation and compromise it gets rhetoric and rigidity. Sincerity, that Chinese codeword for concessions, is noticeably lacking on both sides. Sadly, Hong Kong is in no position to declare with Shakespeare's Mercutio 'a plague o' both your houses'. It can only wait stoically for one side or other to show a little more sincerity than has been evident so far and move to resolve at least those quarrels which have begun to threaten the economy.
If stalemate continues to the point where Hong Kong's prosperity and regional competitiveness are undermined, the territory may be left to complete Mercutio's lines with the accusation most of those who quote him leave out: 'You have made worm's meat of me.' Let us hope it does not come to that.