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Keeping a weather eye open for north winds

FOR those looking for straws to clutch at, there have been a few blowing in the wind in recent weeks. Since China's extraordinarily vitriolic attack on Jardines last month, even those who hope the Governor, Mr Chris Patten, was preparing to climb downor go home, or those who wanted China to signal a readiness to accept constitutional reforms, could see some promising signs of a break in the deadlock.

The Governor's remark on Tuesday that the 1995 electoral arrangements approved by the Legislative Council should be acceptable to Hongkong's present and future sovereign powers was only the latest in a lengthening list of hints that one side or the other might be softening its stance. Previously the conservative Co-operative Resources Centre reported the Governor had said he would be prepared to alter his proposal for the election committee to be made up of directly elected members of the District Boards. However, whoever took their place must also be elected, he said.

More significant to some was the Prime Minister's decision to meet representatives of the CRC, without finding time in his schedule to meet pro-reform legislators.

On the pro-democracy side, Beijing's unexpected silence following the attack on Jardines sparked hopes that a less abrasive attitude was emerging, or at least a willingness to differ discreetly. The Director of China's Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office, Mr Lu Ping, is thought to have come under pressure from the business community, both here and on the mainland, to moderate his criticisms. The damage caused by his remarks was most obvious on the Hongkong stock market, where confidence took a knock.

However Chinese interests also suffered, especially those businesses and individuals who hold substantial investment portfolios here, in public or in private.

However, after a week in which the Hang Seng Index rose by more than six per cent, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mr Wu Jianming, local New China News Agency Director Mr Zhou Nan and his deputy Mr Zhang Junshen, all did their best to cool any optimism, warning that Beijing will not accept anything that diverges in any respect from the Basic Law, even if it is passed by the Legislative Council.


Pessimistic conclusions drawn from such statements are of course no more reliable than the previous confident predictions. Reading tea-leaves would be as useful as seizing on such remarks. These are not the sources to whom one should look for signs of compromise.

It may, of course, be just the lull before another storm, heading our way from the north to greet the start of the Year of the Rooster, but nothing said this week remotely approaches the ferocity of previous Chinese statements. There have been no new attacks on individual companies, and there has been nothing to suggest that a further onslaught on business confidence in Hongkong is justified at this stage.

Mr Patten's conciliatory comment is not so much a change of tune, more of tone, but the mention of acceptability to the future sovereign power has not been a familiar refrain in the well-worn phrases of the last three months. He referred in his October 7 speech only to ''the need to take into account the opinions of the present and future sovereign powers'', which falls short of saying it has to be acceptable. However, the phrase cannot be interpreted as offering China the right of veto over a Legislative Council decision which Mr Patten has said will be final.

The other hints are no stronger. Who would these elected persons be whom the CRC claims Mr Patten would accept on the election committee? Why should Mr Major feel obliged to meet independents, or representatives of small parties in the Legislative Council? Strange though it may seem in the Hongkong or Chinese context, where face is all important, the logic of the British political system is that a party with 17 votes in the Council, and access to the leadership in Beijing, requires a more urgent hearing than smaller groups, however sympathetic their views.


All in all, it is not much on which to base a surge of share-buying on the local market. The absence of fresh assaults from China may indeed reflect concern not to damage its own investments in Hongkong, but it is much more likely that megaphone diplomacy will resume once discussion of the constitutional reforms begins in earnest in the Legislative Council next month. Mr Lu and his colleagues may calculate there is little point in wasting their fire at a time when no decisions are imminent, and are merelykeeping their powder dry for later.