South China Sea
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Sending the right signal

CHINA'S decision to reverse its ban and allow local journalists to cover this week's talks in Beijing on Hongkong's political reforms will help allay concerns about secrecy surrounding the deliberations. While it does not go far enough - Beijing stillhas no plans to divulge details of the talks - it is a welcome concession to Hongkong concerns about its future, however small.

Public expectations going into the talks may be unreasonably high. As the stock market showed last week, the mere fact that both sides have agreed to hold discussions has sent the Hang Seng Index into record-making territory. The business community especially will be looking for some positive signals coming out of the deliberations. However, with fundamental differences emerging between the British and Chinese negotiating positions, there are unlikely to be immediate results.

Given the entrenched positions, the talks may be going ahead more out of deference to Hongkong people's wishes, rather than as a serious attempt to seek agreement. If this is the case, the damage to confidence may be worse than if talks were not held at all.

It should therefore come as no surprise that both China and Britain, for that matter, will want to keep the substance of talks away from public glare. The least that Hongkong would expect if talks did break off, is for both sides to announce a date for the next round of discussions. This would help alleviate local fears that lack of agreement this time does not necessarily mean a total breakdown in relations between the two sides.