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Issue is HK's future


IT is less than three weeks since a new optimism enveloped the talks between China and Britain on Hong Kong's political system.

Less than three weeks since Britain thought it had picked up Chinese hints that it might agree on the ''simple'' elements of reform.

Less than three weeks since Britain decided to speed up the talks by picking up China's suggestion of splitting discussion of the 1994 and 1995 electoral arrangements.

Less than three weeks since senior British officials spoke hopefully about the chances of agreement being greater than 50 per cent.

Now, two almost fruitless rounds of talks later, that dawn at the end of the long black night of dogged confrontation looks to have been false.

One issue on the minds of both sets of negotiators is how to blame the other side for the impasse. China insists it is willing to keep talking, so Britain must bear responsibility if the talks fail. China's willingness to continue would be more meaningful - and its position more credible - if there were some public evidence of its having helped the negotiations go forward, if it had accepted some British proposals or offered specific plans of its own.

Britain is being more subtle. It hints at putting to Legco the ''simple'' proposals - voting age, the single-vote, single-seat voting method and the abolition of municipal council and district board appointed seats. It would remain ready to discuss the more complex elements. Britain has no expectation that China would want to continue the talks but it could blame China for the breakdown.

But the talks are not about who blames whom. They are concerned with the territory's electoral arrangements and the legitimacy of its political institutions. If the negotiations are failing, it is appropriate that the issues (at least stage 1, the ''simple'' ones) be put to the legislature for debate and decision. This would mean some electoral planning could be done and some uncertainty would be removed. Both would be positive results. It would also mean Hong Kong's representatives, reflecting the community's views, would be shaping Hong Kong's future.