WITH Sino-British talks having started and set to resume this week in an apparently healthy atmosphere of dialogue, an unpleasant political distraction has emerged to sour the air. The issue of foreign passport holders and their place in the Legislative Council has been allowed to take up as much space in newspapers as the talks, and it is expected the matter will end up on the table in the Beijing discussions at a later date. It comes as a surprise that the issue, which appeared to have been settled by an explicit reference in the Basic Law, has once again become thorny. Observers may or may not approve of China's stance that possession of a foreign passport strips one of Chinese nationality; it may rankle that China's insistence on a 20 per cent limit on such passport holders in the post 1997 legislature was an apparentretaliation against the British nationality package; but the fact remains that the limit has been set in stone in the Basic Law. However, political groups have been falling over themselves to suggest a number of bizarre methods of implementing the policy. First and most bizarre was the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hongkong's proposal on drawing lots to ensure that the 20 per cent barrier is not broken. Not only would such a proposal make a mockery of what meagre democracy Hongkong enjoys, but would create the kind of political confusion that even the Italians could not match. Then came the Liberal Democratic Federation's suggestion that foreign passport holders be restricted to the functional constituencies - another undemocratic contortion which would devalue the existence of the directly elected seats. But in the latest twist, we report today that two liberal groupings have gone beyond China's wildest dreams in a conservative stance which suggests banning foreign citizens from Legco altogether after 1997. Their argument appears to be that there is norealistic way of ensuring that future elections do not return more than a fifth of passport holders to the legislature, therefore why bother. Instead of suggesting the limit be raised or removed, allowing open house, they deduce a ban should be imposed. It is the kind of sledgehammer to a nut scenario that one usually associates with New China News Agency rhetoric, and one which goes against the tide of an evolving democracy. It also goes against the sentiment of the populace which finds expression in our opinion poll, also published today. Although Hongkong people appear to be agonising about Governor Mr Chris Patten's reforms, and are not united in personal support for the Governor, they have sent a clear message to the British side in the Beijing talks. They expect toughness and fortitude in defending Hongkong's corner in negotiations with China, including the important principle that the Legislative Council must be allowed to agree or veto the outcome of the talks. They also believe that if the talks drag on and China appears to be blocking headway, then the Governor should table his proposals to the council. That such a stance should be urged, in the face of what would be inevitable protestations from China - withall its ramifications for the stock market - is in marked contrast to the meanderings of the politicians on the passports issue. There is no doubt the through-train is a difficult issue, an issue that the talks will have to address, and one which is affected by the number of overseas abode holders on Legco. It is also true that should, hypothetically, the amount of members elected in 1995 exceed the limit, a constitutional headache would ensue. But too many political groups are proposing extreme, illogical measures to fix something that is not broken. Despite a few high-profile Legco voices known to have foreign passports - and liberal sympathies - there is little evidence to suggest there is any prospect of the 20 per cent barrier being smashed in the near future. Mr Patten said last week he hoped legislators would prove themselves more mature than the Heng Seng in reacting to whatever was speculated on in the talks. Judging by the behaviour of some of them on the foreign passports question, he will already have been disappointed.