Patten sets deadline on talks

SINO-BRITISH talks will be given one month to yield results, or Governor Mr Chris Patten will push ahead unilaterally with his political reform package, it was revealed last night.

As the Governor flew back into the territory, refusing to set any deadlines, it was privately confirmed he will not allow negotiations to drag on beyond the end of next month unless an agreement looks likely.

Late May is the latest the electoral bill can be introduced to the Legislative Council and still be passed before the July 21 summer recess.

Four days of talks beginning on Thursday are expected to be followed by two further rounds, a fortnight apart, before Mr Patten takes a decision on whether to abandon negotiations.

''We have to consider how well the talks are going and whether they appear to be proceeding towards satisfactory solution,'' he said on his return to Hongkong last night.

The Governor is said to be determined not to be dragged into an airport-like situation.

But if the Beijing talks make progress he is prepared to put back introducing the bill, even if that delays its passage until the autumn.

Contingency plans are also being considered to split the legislation into sections, and introduce the most urgent parts first, although the favoured option remains for it to be passed as one package.

''There are real administrative constraints on our ability and on the timetable, but we'll have to approach these things in a constructive and adult way,'' Mr Patten said.

It has also been revealed the British side is prepared to make major concessions on the three major issues.

The Government is ready to abandon its controversial proposal for an Election Committee of district board members, and water down the blueprint for huge new functional constituencies, if democratic alternatives can be found.

And it has emerged the British side will not insist China guarantees all legislators ride the post-1997 through-train, despite reports to the contrary.

It will only ask Beijing to define precisely who will be allowed to remain on board, before the 1995 polls.

The administration is welcoming a pro-Beijing group's proposal, to be announced tomorrow, thought likely to form the basis for a possible compromise.

In its alternative plan for the 1994-95 polls, the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hongkong will call on China to draw up ''clear and predictable'' criteria on who can ride the through-train under the Basic Law.

Hongkong's future mini-constitution states only those who ''uphold the Basic Law'', ''pledge allegiance to the Hongkong SAR [Special Administrative Region]'' and ''meet the requirements set forth in the Basic Law'' will be allowed to remain in office across the transition.

Alliance secretary-general Mr Cheng Kai-nam said yesterday Beijing must spell out such conditions in more precise legal terms, and must not be retroactive, meaning legislators would not be thrown off for past actions, such as those during the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

''Under these guidelines people like Martin Lee [of the United Democrats] would not be thrown off the train just because he is Martin Lee,'' he said. ''Rather, everyone will be judged according to his or her actions after taking the oath in 1997.'' Mr Cheng said the details could be spelt out as an addition to any future Sino-British agreement, and the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee would then enact the guidelines that legislators had to fulfil.

He suggested the requirements be set out in advance of the 1995 polls so candidates would know before they decided to stand for election.

Councillors elected would take an oath in 1997 based on these guidelines and after then it would be left to the courts to decide if anyone should be removed from Legco.

Hongkong Affairs Adviser Professor Lau Siu-kai said the alliance's proposal would help United Democrats ride the through-train, but would not solve the impasse over the issue because legislators meeting standards set down in 1995 might no longer do so by 1997.

''I can't see any possibility of an absolute guarantee for everyone to sit on the through-train,'' said Professor Lau, a key adviser to Beijing on electoral matters.

But he said the through-train dispute could be solved if the Government restricted the number of foreign passport-holders sitting in Legco after 1995, and councillors were then asked to swear a simple oath in accordance with the requirements of the BasicLaw.

Professor Lau said he expected Britain to accept a less than full through-train, where not every legislator was guaranteed a seat, and that London would also climb down over functional constituencies, while China gave some ground on the Election Committee.

And the preparatory committee of the Liberal Party, headed by legislator Mr Allen Lee Peng-fei, also decided yesterday to write to NPC chairman Mr Qiao Shi, seeking clarification on the exact meaning of the through-train requirements in the Basic Law.

Meanwhile, British team leader and Ambassador to Beijing, Sir Robin McLaren, will arrive in the territory on Tuesday, along with Foreign Office official Mr Peter Ricketts, for a series of strategy sessions.

And China last night unveiled its team. Serving under Vice-Foreign Minister Mr Jiang Enzhu will be Mr Zhao Jihua, the Director of the Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office of the Foreign Ministry, as well as Mr Wang Fengchao and Mr Wei Lingyan, from the Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, and local New China News Agency official Mr Chen Wei.