Unrealistic postures

THE high profile given to Hongkong delegates at last week's Guangdong People's Congress, and yesterday's talks in Guangzhou between 37 Hongkong advisers and Mr Lu Ping, hold an unmistakable message for Britain. China is rallying its supporters for a show of strength in advance of the Legislative Council debate on the Governor's reform proposals, starting later this month. These are the components of the ''second stove'' Beijing will begin to set up if Britain goes ahead with its plans for greater democracy in the territory.

It is they who will represent Hongkong in China should the Legislative Council endorse the Patten blueprint. Even if the amended version comes closer to the Chinese model, it will not be accepted in Beijing, because it believes Hongkong must not have a decision-making role in its own affairs before 1997.

Britain's view is that it is unacceptable that decisions about the territory's future should continue to be presented to the directly elected representatives of the people as a fait accompli. It is illogical for China not to recognise the Legislative Council when its role and make-up after 1997 are set out in such detail in the Basic Law.

Although China has taken such a stern line, it nevertheless expects the Foreign Secretary, Mr Douglas Hurd, to travel to Beijing in April with no resolution of the current impasse in sight. A meeting with his opposite number Mr Qian Qichen is required bythe Memorandum of Understanding on the airport, and protocol suggests it should be in the Chinese capital. Not to go would be interpreted as a snub. However, Mr Hurd is understandably reluctant to risk humiliation at the hands of senior officials and thosewho really run Hongkong policy, for the sake of a pro-forma encounter with Mr Qian, who does not.

Yet Mr Hurd and his advisers appear to believe similar dilemmas will gradually become less frequent as China comes to terms with whatever the Legislative Council decides. New China News Agency Director Mr Zhou Nan's hardline comments are seen as the views of an extremist and long-time anti-British campaigner, and that more conciliatory views exist elsewhere among the Chinese leadership.

Such optimism seems surprising when Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping is calling Hongkong the thorniest issue facing his country at the moment. There is little evidence of a divergence of opinion, unless it is based on the theory that half the Beijing hierarchy is dissembling and will throw off its hardline disguise the moment Mr Deng dies. The West has persuaded itself that China's modernisers and reformists must also be moderates and democrats at heart. Not even the belligerent statements of reformist Vice-Premier Mr Zhu Rongji on his recent visit to London have been able to dent Britain's public belief in his moderation.


Hongkong cannot rely on such fanciful notions. The Chinese leadership has rarely appeared so united as in its opposition to the Patten package. If Britain is to go ahead with democratic reform here, then it must be ready to deal realistically with Beijing. If toughing it out is the correct policy, then it must be done with a clear view of where the strengths and weaknesses of both sides' negotiating positions lie.

Britain must also be ready to put the interests of Hongkong uppermost. There is a tendency in London to assume that what is good for the Conservative Party is good for Hongkong. Having rightly given the Legislative Council the responsibility for decidingthe fate of the constitutional reform package, London cannot decree that the outcome must be guaranteed to ensure the greater glory of Chris Patten back in Britain. Parliament and the British media would undoubtedly prefer that the United Democrats carry the day in the Legislative Council voting over the next few months.

They are currently among the Governor's most loyal supporters and their victory would be a public relations coup for British-style democracy. It is an historic mistake that the Legislative Council as it is currently constituted does not have a directly elected majority. The UDHK could be outvoted by a coalition of conservative, pro-China and moderate liberal forces, which prefers - rightly or wrongly - to reach a compromise closer to China's interpretation of the Basic Law.