Summit decides to keep talks alive

BRITAIN last night decided to keep on talking to China over democracy for Hongkong.

But Governor Chris Patten and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd stressed that time was running out to reach an agreement ahead of the 1994/95 elections.

Mr Patten warned that if no agreement could be reached he might still be prepared to go ahead unilaterally on further democracy for the territory.

The Governor spoke after a meeting of the Cabinet Special Hongkong Sub-committee. The meeting lasted one hour and 20 minutes - 20 minutes less than expected.

Earlier, Mr Patten said another objective of the negotiations with China was to secure ''objective criteria for the through train''.

This refers to assurances from China that legislators elected in 1995 for a four-year term would be sure of retaining their seats after 1997.

Mr Patten said: ''I think that people would be unable to understand if candidates for the 1995 elections were going around canvassing unable to tell people whether they were likely to be able to travel through 1997 to 1999, unable to say whether they were going to be two-year legislators or four-year legislators.

''That doesn't mean that I think every legislator in 1995 has to have an absolute guarantee that without any other considerations coming into play they can travel through to 1999, but it means that legislators must have the same sort of clear and objective criteria to travel through that they have at the moment.

''If you are a candidate today you have to meet certain qualifications to be a candidate.

''If you become a legislator you have to take the oath - either the oath of allegiance or the Legislative Council oath.

''There are similar provisions in the Basic Law for legislators, for the chief executive, in order to take oaths, in order to qualify for office, that is, as it were, a justifiable criteria.

''It is not a question of asking a group of people at some stage after the elections whether they think that an individual legislator has the right attitude for the post to matters which might concern them in the future. That is not objective, it is subjective. I hope that is a reasonably full explanation of what I mean by that.'' Both Foreign Office and Hongkong Office officials said Mr Patten had not changed his stance.

Present at yesterday's meeting chaired by Prime Minister John Major were Mr Hurd, Overseas Development Minister Dame Lynda Chalker, Home Secretary Michael Howard, Leader of the Commons Anthony Newton, Hongkong Minister Alastair Goodlad, Beijing Ambassador Sir Robin McLaren and Mr Patten.

Armed Forces Minister Jeremy Hanley stood in for Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, while Tim Sainsbury, a trade minister, stood in for the president of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine.

The prospect of the top-level meeting, described in Hongkong Government circles as a summit, is believed to have led to a slight shift of ground by the Chinese side in the recent sixth round of talks in Beijing.

While Mr Patten and the British Government were being guarded on any new strategy, it was clear they hoped the London review of progress may give added momentum to the seventh round next week.

Both Mr Patten and Mr Hurd described the mood of the meeting as ''first class'', but expressed concern at the time it was taking to reach agreement with China.

''Obviously, the patience of the people of Hongkong is not limitless. The people of Hongkong want the talks to succeed. They do not want us to abandon our principles to get success,'' Mr Patten said.

''There will come a moment where, if we do not have an agreement, we will have to get on with things ourselves.''