HK 'will participate' in Sino-British talks

Fanny Wong

HONGKONG officials will participate in any Sino-British talks on the 1994/95 electoral arrangements, it was claimed yesterday, with the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung, likely to be on the British negotiating team if discussions go ahead.

The Governor, Mr Chris Patten, dismissed speculation that Hongkong would be excluded from talks and described as ''ridiculous'' rumours that he was not being consulted about the current diplomatic exchanges.

His spokesman, Mr Mike Hanson, said the Government was not in a position to make a statement on whether there would be talks.

But he added: ''If there are to be talks, Hongkong will be fully involved at every stage and this means direct participation.'' Should the talks go ahead, it is understood that leading the British team will be the Ambassador to China, Sir Robin McLaren, while Mr Sze and Hongkong's Political Adviser, Mr William Ehrman, would also be included.

The Chinese team is expected to be headed by Vice-Foreign Minister Mr Jiang Enzhu and include Mr Wang Fengchao, of the State Council's Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office.

Beijing yesterday stood firm on its demand that Mr Patten's political reform package be abandoned before Sino-British talks on the future of Hongkong resumed.

The Chinese Prime Minister, Mr Li Peng, also reiterated that any matters straddling 1997 should be resolved by the two governments through consultation. To facilitate the resumption of talks, it is understood that the Government will not gazette the billgiving effect to Mr Patten's constitutional package today as earlier planned.

An option being considered by the British side is whether to delay the gazette until April, as it is expected the talks would take about two months.

However, the Government has not ruled out the possibility that the bill may still be gazetted before the end of the month as the Government had promised to publish it no later than February.

The uncertainty surrounding the bill has prompted liberal legislator Mr Szeto Wah to apply to raise an urgent oral question at the Legislative Council sitting next week, asking the administration if it has decided to delay gazetting the bill and, if so, the reason.

The United Democrats member is waiting for Legco Deputy President Mr John Swaine's ruling, as the quota of six oral questions for next week's sitting has already been taken up.

Mr Szeto will seek other legislators' support for the move at the House Committee's meeting today.

Notwithstanding China's official hard line, there are signs the Chinese Government does not consider Hongkong an insurmountable problem.

Former British prime minister Sir Edward Heath was ''invited'' to make a ''courtesy call'' on Communist Party General Secretary Mr Jiang Zemin on Tuesday.

The meeting in Zhongnanhai, which was not reported in the official Chinese media, lasted one hour and was attended by Sir Robin.

It is understood that the Hongkong issue was not raised by either Mr Jiang or Sir Edward, suggesting that China did not think it was necessary to use an intermediary to resolve the dispute.