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Britain and China to ratify Hong Kong treaty

The embrace by the Chinese motherland of 5.5 million Hong Kong residents will be formally endorsed Monday when Britain and China exchange papers in a low-key ceremony in Peking. The meeting between Chinese foreign minister Wu Xueqian and British ambassador Sir Richard Evans will close the final chapter in two years of difficult negotiations over the future of Hong Kong. It will ratify an agreement between China and Britain, signed in Peking last December by the two countries' prime ministers.

A series of announcements this week brought an end to months of speculation about serious disagreements between the two countries.

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The announcements included setting the date for the ratification ceremony, naming members of a team which will oversee the transition from British to Chinese rule, and clarifying the status of a Hong Kong citizen, whom the British wanted included on the transition team.

Both the Chinese and British governments had an incentive in completing the arrangements before Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang visits Britain on June 2. The visit is exepcted to consolidate improvements in Sino-British relations which have followed the agreement on Hong Kong. This may include opening the door to increased trade and other economic ties.

Britain cleared away the last obstacle to ratifying the Hong Kong treaty by finding a way to bypass Peking's objection to including Eric Ho, a prominent Hong Kong-Chinese civil servant, in the transition team.

China refuses to recognize Hong Kong citizens of Chinese descent who carry the British Dependent Territory Citizen (BDTC) passport as British nationals. It therefore would not accept the appointment of Mr. Ho to the transition team on the grounds that he would be serving as a British diplomat and yet was not a British national.

By granting Mr. Ho a British passport, London sidestepped the issue. In doing so, it added a respected official to the group which has the task of smoothing the way for Chinese control of Hong Kong in 1997. Mr. Ho is Hong Kong's secretary for trade and industry, and his appointment will surely bloster the confidence of Hong Kong's business community.

London's action highlighted the continuing disagreement with Peking over the nationality of Hong Kong citizens. In the words of one British official, ``We have agreed to disagree on this issue.''

``The decision [on Mr. Ho] does not alter Britain's position that BDTC's are British nationals,'' the official said. Despite this status, holders of Hong Kong passports are not guaranteed the right to emigrate to Britain.

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The ten-man transition team, known officially as the Joint Liason Group, begins its work next week and will remain in existence until the year 2000, or three years after China regains sovereignty over Hong Kong. The group's agenda already includes the sticky job of sorting out Hong Kong's external relations after 1997, as affected by some 500 international treaties and agreements.

Other members of the team were announced this week include four British diplomats, and five Chinese officials appointed by Peking. One is Ke Zaishuo, the head of the new Hong Kong and Macao office in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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