DECOUPLE?'' Suddenly, ''decoupling'' has appeared on the political agenda. Out of nowhere this new buzz word has emerged in the Sino-British negotiations on Hong Kong, and forgive us Governor Patten, taken most of the territory's citizens by surprise. Three days ago, under Mr Patten's guidance, Hong Kong was not for swerving, let alone ''decoupling''. ''You wouldn't achieve anything at all by trying to separate the DB [District Board] and the MC [Municipal Council] elections from the Legco elections,'' he said on Tuesday, when separation was first publicly flagged in Beijing. On the same day, Liberal Party spokesman Henry Tang Ying-yen was putting the idea about on local radio and pro-Beijing hardliner Tsang Yok-sing said he believed it provided new opportunities for negotiations. Even Meeting Point members said they could see the point of the idea. By lunchtime Senior Executive Councillor Baroness Dunn had decided to make one of her rare public pronouncements by contributing that it would not be an easy job to separate them in terms of the laws required. ''You still need to have agreement between the two governments,'' she said. The background briefings carried the same message. It was not just a question of time being short, the government spokesmen and advisers said. It was the complicated, interlinked arrangements of the package that made separation out of the question. Firstly, there had to be time for new voters to be registered and that happens in April to August of each year. Secondly, the legislation had to be drafted, passed through two readings in Legco and committee before it would be returned to the Executive Council and was enacted by the Governor. All this needed to be achieved by September 30 next year, the argument has gone, and unless the deadline was met, the 1994 District Board and the Municipal Council elections could not be held by the year's end. In the best circumstances, even simple legislation like the Boundaries and Electoral Commission Ordinance, has taken almost six months, a senior civil servant said. So it would be fortunate indeed (until last Thursday, that is) if such controversial legislation as the democracy proposals could equal that timetable. The common view, despite appointed Legislator Henry Tang's urging for civil servants to work harder to push the legislation through Legco, was that it would not. In other words, the idea was totally out of the Sino-Hong Kong-British negotiating ball-park. By Thursday evening, a new scenario was in place which is still puzzling pundits and quite a few liberal legislative councillors. What is to be made of the Governor's decision to separate the easy bits of the package from the, by corollary, the hard ones, after his cocktail hour meeting with Liberal Party chairman Allen Lee Peng-fei and his deputy Ronald Arculli? Certainly, it was an option that did seem particularly popular earlier that day. Acting Constitutional Affairs Secretary Leung Chin-man had given a one-hour talkback defence of keeping the package linked on breakfast radio that morning. And at 4 pm the official line was that the Governor did not want the package separate. 'Its proponents just want to create wriggle room,'' one source said, ''and we don't see the need for them to have it.'' Roughly an hour later, Mr Patten said: ''If it is the Chinese position that in order to help concentrate attention on the really big issues, they would be happy to agree with us now on some issues which should be absolutely straightforward like the voting age, like the voting method, like the district board and municipal council elections. ''If the Chinese side wants to agree with us now on the simple things - and it hasn't unfortunately done so for the last 13 rounds - then we'll be happy to receive a call.'' Damage control went into action straight away. Several newspapers yesterday quoted the governor's spokesman, Mr Mike Hanson, as saying Mr Patten had not changed his mind on the package. Deputy Information Co-ordinator Mr Kerry McGlynn, was also talking the decision down. Quoted in one Chinese newspaper, he said the governor's remarks did not mean there was any change in the urgency for making the electoral preparations. The United Democrats and their independent allies were making similar noises. Constitutional Affairs Secretary, Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung, had put the word out. It was not a sell-out, and certainly not a cop-out. Stay calm, the message was. Mr Patten was just going that extra mile to prove how sincere he was in his efforts to reach an accommodation with the Chinese. Elsewhere, cynicism has set in, even among the most ardent fans of Mr Patten. ''It's either an enormous red herring, or it's a huge concession,'' said one pro-Patten commentator. ''When you use the term decouple that implies that the package always was separate. Once that is done, the package is blown to bits.'' Respected independent legislator, Mr Jimmy McGregor, said before the announcement that he opposed separation. ''You take in all the easy bits. In China you can vote at 18, so they can't argue with that. Similarly, they could not really disagree with single-seat, single-vote constituencies. That leaves the District Board and Municipal Council elections. ''People will be distracted with them, and the rest of the package will just fade away.'' Another theory to justify Mr Patten's decision is that he is calling China's bluff. According to Mr Lee, after his meeting this week with the Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, Beijing suggested decoupling at the October 1 meeting in New York between Mr Qichen and the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Douglas Hurd. Britain rejected the idea, but since then there have been two more rounds of unsuccessful Sino-British talks and the Chinese have hardened their position. They still refuse to reveal, either privately or publicly, their criteria for the through train, yet they insist those who do not suit them will not be on board after June 30, 1997. And that includes District Board and Municipal Council members, supposed to be elected in 1994. Without any compromise in sight, Mr Patten therefore has nothing to lose by appearing as reasonable as possible. Beijing has suggested decoupling. He has accepted the offer, with conditions attached. If China still refused to reach an agreement it is not his fault, and the constituency can't blame him for intransigence, even if the most important elements of the package are scuttled because time has run out for new election arrangements for the Legislative Council. There is another view, which bypasses Hong Kong interests altogether. A close associate of Mr Lee said yesterday that China won't reach an agreement because it can't. National pride, or face, is at stake. They can't concede to Britain, or to Mr Patten whom they try to ignore. They remain opposed to the package, and they must now be more confident about their position. Britain already has backed down on the enfranchisement of the Legislative Council's functional constituencies, and China would be justified in believing they could squeeze more concessions out of Mr Hurd, and his negotiating representatives, in the next few months. As another commentator said yesterday: ''We [Hong Kong] were lucky that China did not take us up on the bunch of concessions in the ninth round of talks. We would have almost nothing left now.'' Britain would not see it like that. British interests have to be served in this equation too. They are diverse in the region, and suspicion about the commercial motives of Hong Kong's colonial masters runs deep on the Chinese side. Liberal Party insiders point out that approval for Container Terminal No 9 has been stalled because Beijing believed Jardine's had received favoured treatment in their tender for a share in the project. Their reaction would have been different, if Mr Li Ka-shing's company, Hutchison International Terminals (HIT) had been given a more favourable hearing in the tendering. A similar vein of suspicion runs through the Beijing hierarchy when it comes to the new airport. Within five years there will be four new international airports in the Pearl River Delta region. Many members of the Beijing oligarchy would prefer funds to go to Macau, Shenzhen and Guangzhou rather than Chek Lap Kok which is very expensive, and being built largely by British and European consortiums. A compromise needs to be reached on these major projects, and there is strong commercial incentive for Britain to concede democracy proposals in exchange for cold hard cash, and access to future Chinese markets. British Prime Minister Mr John Major will not earn many of the millions of votes he needs to hold on to power at home, if he puts jobs and foreign exchange for the United Kingdom behind the interests of six million people who will soon become Chinese citizens. A third option is that both sides recognise that the talks are going nowhere and never will. As a result they are both squaring up for the inevitable climbdown, and seeking justifications for the collapse. Until Thursday, China thought it held the upper hand because it did not believe that Mr Patten really would agree to decoupling. After all, he has poohed-poohed the notion often enough. Nice one, Mr Patten. Beijing could have been caught offguard. But what will be the consequences of this cat-and-mouse game? The answer? The usual one - Hong Kong will probably suffer. There were strong rumours yesterday that Mr Patten is changing his programme for his planned visit to London in November and will extend his stay. Presumably he wants to ensure a do or die decision to end all future talks and proceed with tabling the bills - decoupled or otherwise. With this week's events behind us, it is difficult to see Hong Kong being offered the present package of democracy proposals when they vote in the new Legco in 1995.