IT IS hard to remember the high hopes that originally surrounded yesterday's meeting of British and Chinese foreign ministers in New York. The fact the session was taking place at all was seen, when first announced during Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd's July visit to Beijing, as proof Sino-British relations were on the mend, amid widespread predictions a deal on the 1994-95 polls would be struck during the meeting. Even little more than a month ago there was still a general expectation the New York summit would see rapid progress towards an agreement on the two most contentious issues to be resolved, the composition of the nine new functional constituencies and theElection Committee. Newspapers were also optimistically reporting that, at the least, an accord ending the long-running dispute over the future of military lands, would be finalised during the talks. In the event, such predictions turned out to be wide of the mark. For whenMr Hurd - like most in the Foreign Office, a self-proclaimed professional optimist - said only ''a little'' progress had been made, after 21/4 hours with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, what he meant was there had been none at all. This means that, unless there is a sudden breakthrough, the talks on electoral arrangements are now entering their end game. Next week's 13th round will be followed by a 14th and 15th round later in the month, and then, most likely, that will be it. British officials can hardly hide their frustration: after having given so much ground, and effectively abandoned all the main planks of Governor Chris Patten's original political reform blueprint, Beijing is still refusing to make the slightest concessions in return. China sees nothing strange in that. From the mainland's point of view, the onus is on London to continue presenting revised versions of its proposals until it comes up with one which does not breach Beijing's interpretation of the Basic Law. But with Britain adamant it cannot make any further concessions unless China first makes some, the continuing protestations that no deadline has been set are beginning to sound increasingly threadbare, and may only be intended for public consumption. Mr Patten is unlikely to mention any cut-off date in Wednesday's policy address. Indeed, Mr Hurd once again denied there was a deadline when speaking to reporters in New York yesterday. But his other comments conveyed a somewhat different impression, as he said the talks would continue this month, while making no mention of anything beyond then, in a clear hint next month may well see their end. That is when the deadline will come, as Mr Patten returns to London for a high-profile visit in early November which will include a crucial meeting with Mr Hurd and Prime Minister John Major at which the final decision on whether to call the talks off will be taken. A full session of the cabinet committee on Hong Kong will not even be strictly necessary, since the last session on July 1 apparently gave the Patten-Major-Hurd triumvirate the authority to break-off negotiations if no progress was achieved by autumn. However, it is likely a fresh meeting of the cabinet committee will be convened, if only to show the British Government's unanimous backing for Mr Patten, with Ambassador Sir Robin McLaren summoned back from Beijing to sit in on the meeting. Britain's options will begin to close even before that meeting, as Hong Kong and Foreign Office officials start to prepare policy papers, setting out how the breakup should be handled. But any decision taken in London need not be announced there and then, for the technical deadline to begin making public preparations for the 1994 polls does not come until mid-December, when the Government must publish boundaries for the district board elections. That breathing space will perhaps even allow for a few more fruitless rounds of talks, before Mr Patten's decision to go it alone is finally made public. It also shows how the November deadline is more of a political than an administrative one. For, at a pinch, the Government could allow negotiations to drag on beyond December, and still get its electoral arrangements in place in time. Many also believe that, given sufficient will, the legislation for the 1994 polls could be separated from the others and introduced first, although the Government strenuously denies this. The feeling in Government is that there is little point in exploring such possibilities since the Chinese are not seen as serious about wanting to reach an agreement, which means any attempt to prolong the negotiations would only prolong the present agony. Indeed, things are seen to be getting worse rather than better, following the recent publication of Deng Xiaoping's remarks on the possibility of taking Hong Kong back before 1997. So that, rather than the fact the clock is ticking away, is primarily why deadlines are now beginning to be set in private. All of this is based on the assumption that China will stick to its present tough line. If Beijing instead cleverly begins to make concessions at the last moment before Britain calls off the talks, as it has done so often in the past, then all such careful calculations will go by the board. And Hong Kong will then be in for a rough autumn.