Why Patten could lose out when it's time to talk

GOVERNOR Mr Chris Patten has nothing to gain and everything to lose from the talks Britain and China are now close to holding to discuss Hongkong's political development.

There is a sense of deja vu about the whole affair. It has emerged that the deadlock to such talks was broken by an exchange of letters between London and Beijing - all too reminiscent of the way secret deals used to be hatched between the two governments, in the bad old days before the advent of Mr Patten's more open administration.

Foreign Secretary Mr Douglas Hurd apparently wrote to his Chinese counterpart, Mr Qian Qichen, enclosing a copy of the draft bill on the 1995 elections - after it had been passed by the Executive Council - and restating Britain's position that it was happy to hold talks on the territory's political development.

To London's - and, even more so, Hongkong's - surprise, Mr Qian responded by letter suggesting China might agree to talks. Diplomatic contacts began in Beijing to try to work out the details.

Although these talks have yet to lead to an agreement to reopen discussions, despite indications last week that an announcement was imminent, the Foreign Office apparently believes all arrangements have been worked out, and it is simply waiting for China to respond.

The whole thing could still fizzle out in the next few days, of course, but many officials believe that this is highly unlikely.


Certainly, the composition of the two teams is now clear. Heading the British side would be Ambassador to Beijing Sir Robin Mclaren, flanked by other embassy officials involved in Hongkong affairs, such as Mr Nigel Cox and Miss Janet Rogan.

No Foreign Office official would be sent from London to participate, which is unusual for such talks.

Heading Beijing's team would be a vice-foreign minister rather than Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office chief Mr Lu Ping - a conscious signal that these are seen as direct talks between the Chinese and British governments, not the Hongkong administration. REPORTS last week that Hongkong would be totally left out of the negotiating team were inaccurate from the start: London will not let the discussions go ahead without at least the presence of Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung orPolitical Adviser Mr William Ehrman.

But Government House's hyper-sensitive reaction - spokesman Mr Mike Hanson issued a denial within minutes of the first reports - shows just how sore an issue this is.


For while the Hongkong Government is not being left completely in the cold - it will have the same token representation in any coming talks as on the British Joint Liaison Group - it is clear the focus is shifting away from Government House towards Foreign Office diplomats in London and Beijing.

A flashback to the last round of talks on political development shows just how much things have changed. In October, it was the Governor and his aides who led the talks with Mr Lu, while British diplomats sat silently by.


This time, if discussions go ahead, it would be the other way round - with Hongkong officials listening as Sir Robin, an old China hand, does the talking.

And while he loyally defends the Patten package in public, Sir Robin is believed to have deep reservations about it.

Some in the Foreign Office suggest Mr Patten is partly to blame for his exclusion from any negotiations because he blew any chance of opening direct communications with Beijing during his October visit.


Certainly, Government House seemed to be on the sidelines during all the latest manoeuvring.

Although there is no hard evidence it actually tried to obstruct a reopening of negotiations, the Hongkong Government has been markedly less enthusiastic about the idea of renewed talks than its British counterpart.

A Government House statement pointedly tried to re-focus attention on the administration's position that - negotiations or not - nothing will be allowed to breach the base-line of electoral arrangements that are ''fair, open and acceptable to the people of Hongkong''.


Mr Sze, often dubbed the Governor's blue-eyed boy, signalled strong reluctance to further delay gazetting the bill on the 1995 elections, saying there would have to be a ''very good explanation'' for doing so.

Under almost any scenario for renewed negotiations, the Governor and his team, who have invested so much of their credibility in promoting the Patten package, will lose out.

Perhaps their least negative option would be talks that swiftly ended in failure. That would still cause an embarrassing breach of the pledge to gazette the legislation this month, but at least have the public relations benefit of showing the administration had done all it could to reach a settlement with Beijing. MORE likely, however, is that Beijing would cunningly allow negotiations to drag on - leaving the administration with the dilemma of whether to unilaterally break off the talks and face a barrageof criticism for doing so.

Worse still, from Mr Patten's point of view, is the idea the two sides might actually reach agreement. That Sir Robin and his sinologist negotiating team will strike a deal they believe acceptable, but which will inevitably involve painful compromises, issomething the Governor would find extremely hard to accept.

In any event, the Governor is already beginning to be by-passed in precisely the way Prime Minister Mr John Major promised would never happen. He told his Chinese counterpart last year that ''when you speak to Chris Patten you are speaking to me''.

It may be far too early to talk of an end to the Patten era - as one local newspaper did last week, prompting a furious Government inquiry into the source of the remark.

But what is now true is that such a scenario is now conceivable. If Britain and China go behind Mr Patten's back in any talks, then Hongkong's 28th Governor is in deep trouble.