THE demon drink can do terrible things to a man. You find yourself doing really stupid stuff. Like the other night when I crashed in front of the box. Four gweilos - who had to be in a worse state than me - were discussing the Sino-British talks in Beijing. Only a veteran Beirut kidnap victim could have stood it for more than a few minutes, this being the 1,997 th English-language How the Entire Civilised World is Doomed Without a Few More Elected Blokes in Legco, or Maybe Not current affairs programme. Moderator: The new round of Sino-British talks have been going on for about 10 days now. What do you think will be the outcome? Guest 1: Well Brian, we heard just half an hour ago from the British Ambassador to Beijing who said absolutely nothing. This is very encouraging. And yesterday we witnessed a huge breakthrough with the talks being moved from a small room at Guest House Number 239 to a larger room with a small window and lace doilies on the back of the chairs. This is a very significant step forward. Guest 2: Yes Brian, I would agree. As you know, the media is not permitted to cover these talks and neither side is saying anything. It is my guess some of the PRC negotiators have died and are being propped up in their chairs. This is an interesting ploy, although not new in discussions with the Chinese. Moderator: Do you see the move to a larger room and everyone ignoring the press on their way in and out as an indication of China beginning to crack down over the Patten proposals? Guest 3: What we need to bear in mind here is the wide-ranging political significance of the larger room at Guest House Number 239. Reports from one Chinese daily in the capital suggest that ''bigger room'' has a large brass spittoon of the same type used by Deng Xiaoping. This leads me to believe the Chinese side are either taking the talks very seriously indeed or the team leader has the 'flu. Guest 2: I think we need to remember China is adamant about its position vis-a-vis Hongkong. This was demonstrated by the recent statement regarding the Three-Legged Stool in a New Kitchen on the Through Train which some foreign journalists mistook for areference to the seating arrangements in the restaurant carriage of the Shanghai to Beijing Express. Guest 1: Yes, they do appear to be entrenched. Saying nothing could well be a signal they are immovable on the question of more democracy for Hongkong after 1997, regardless of facilities in the dining car of an important inter-city rail link. Moderator: Getting back to the venue for the moment, how do you see the chances of negotiations moving from the large to the main conference hall? Guest 2: Well, if you recall, Mr Li Peng said nothing whatsoever at a news conference only yesterday. History tells us to be vigilant when the Chinese don't really say anything. This complete lack of substance could in itself have very significant undertones. Guest 3: You took the words right out of my mouth. We must never underestimate the Chinese leaders, particularly when they say hardly anything or absolutely zero. Guest 1: I couldn't agree more. To an outsider it might appear nothing is happening at these talks. But we have to watch for Chinese subtleties. For example, I am reminded that the Chinese characters for ''no progress was made today'' and ''we do not give a monkey's whether progress is made or not'' are identical. Moderator: What do you think the Chinese leadership meant when they made the vehement statement that if the Patten proposals went through, then China would definitely tear up all agreements made with Britain regarding Hongkong during the past 12 years and not pay one cent to the banks for the cost of the new airport? Guest 3: We've come to expect these subtle nuances in language from across the border. The fact is it is difficult to know exactly what was meant by that particular cryptic remark. Personally I don't read much into it at all, but then we're used to Beijing being less than direct in its dealings with the West. Moderator: But didn't Mr Li Peng himself say that under no circumstances whatsoever would China agree to Mr Patten's plan? Guest 1: I think the fact that he made such a thinly veiled remark says a great deal about the inclusion of lace doilies in the larger room. Don't forget, the placing of lace doilies in a negotiation room is an ancient Chinese way of saying ''there is room for negotiation''. It is vital we understand this. And if this were not the case the two sides would clearly not be at the table. Guest 2: Absolutely. Why else would the Hongkong stock market be at record levels? Since the signing of the Joint Declaration chartists following top level Sino-British talks in China have recorded a direct correlation between the number of lace doilies and industrial size spittoons in the room and the Hang Seng Index. As for those dirty plastic tea mugs with a lid on . . . Peter Sherwood is managing director of Edelman Public Relations Hongkong.