AFTER months of often very bitter wrangling, China and Britain will today sit down at the negotiating table in a bid to break the deadlock over Hongkong's future electoral arrangements. With the gulf between the two sides so great, it is difficult to see how a quick solution can be found. Britain continues to insist that the Governor Mr Chris Patten's reform package should be the starting point for discussions while China rejects such a notion, saying it can be neither the foundation nor the opening gambit for talks. Despite such seemingly irreconcilable views, these should not be taken as a sign the talks are headed for certain failure. Indications yesterday suggested that both sides are going into the negotiations with an element of goodwill. In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce, Mr Patten urged the United States not to link China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status with political reforms in Hongkong. Mr Patten knows that he may have his differences with China over the pace of political reform, but any attempt by the US, however well-meaning, to use MFN as a battering ram against China will also leave Hongkong badly bruised. For his part, Mr Lu Ping has said he does not want to undermine the Government's ability to a administer the territory in the run-up to 1997. Even legislators backed away from aggravating the outcome of the talks by voting down a referendum call to gauge public views on the 1994/95 electoral arrangements. Despite such encouraging signs, there is no suggestion that either Britain or China is prepared to soften their stance on Hongkong reforms. As a result, it is difficult to see how this round of talks will lead to anything substantive apart from the setting out of an agenda for further negotiations. If more is accomplished it will be outside most expectations. One matter that both sides will need to tackle and which has strong support in the community is the establishment of clear guidelines on the through train. That is, the establishment of criteria in which legislators elected in 1995 will be allowed to ride the through train to the first post-1997 legislature. Beijing has said it wants to vet those who can qualify to sit on the through train, yet if it is to be more than a charade, all those elected in 1995 must be able to ride it. How can Britain possibly be party to any agreement that prevents those whom China regards as unsuitable to serve after 1997? Arrangements also for the new functional constituencies and the election committee will have to be addressed as well as the type of electoral system that will be needed to determine the political make-up of the post-1995 legislature. However, these issues cannot be discussed in isolation. If there is to be a through train, how can the Basic Law's stipulation that only 20 per cent of legislators with overseas right of abode be met or allocated? On this issue, more thought will have to be given to finding a workable solution other than the suggestion of one political group to draw lots. To treat Hongkong's legislature like a lottery in which members can be taken off because they have drawn the short straw is to make a mockery of the territory's political system. It has to be assumed that China is serious in wishing to reach an agreement with Britain and is not merely using the talks as a stalling tactic to keep Mr Patten's reform bill from being tabled in Legco. Mr Patten did his best yesterday to neutralise oneof the most potent weapons the international community can bring to bear on Beijing by his spirited defence of China's MFN status. However, his comments should serve as a reminder to China that it, too, is under pressure to reach a fair and decent agreement. Like its future membership of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its chances of hosting the Olympics, China's MFN status will be determined in part by its treatment of Hongkong and the extent to which it allows a free and fair political system to take root here. Inevitably, there will be many who believe both China and Britain are entering into negotiations over Hongkong mainly with a view to looking after their own interests. However, both sides should not lose sight of the fact that their interests will be served in the long term by reaching an agreement that is acceptable to the people of Hongkong.