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China Warns Patten on Hong Kong Reforms

ANEW diplomatic crisis over the political future of Hong Kong has broken out between Britain and China.

Beijing yesterday warned that Britain's decision to push ahead with political reforms in the colony is undermining negotiations between the two countries, and could damage trade and economic ties before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule in 1997.

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On Wednesday, an impatient Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten in- troduced some of his proposals for limited dem- ocracy to the colony legislature which must act on the plan. That action came after talks found- ered in late No- vember follow- ing 17 rounds of talks in Beijing.

``This will surely affect Sino-British relations, including economic and trade relations,'' said Wu Jianmin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, at a news briefing yesterday.

Beijing's most recent belligerence once again threatens to plunge Hong Kong into a new political and economic storm. China has said Mr. Patten's move is demolishing the ``foundation of Sino-British cooperation'' and has implied it will dismantle any British political changes that take place without Beijing's approval.

In a move to entice a Chinese compromise, Patten split his political proposals, putting the most controversial on the back burner while moving ahead with a scaled-down plan. The proposals include lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and abolishing appointed seats on municipal councils. The contentious issues include broadening the franchise for the 40 legislative seats that are indirectly elected.

Still, Western diplomats suggest China has stopped short of completely ending any further discussions and wants to avoid a total break, which could cripple Hong Kong's vibrant but volatile economy. At the briefing, Mr. Wu did not answer a question about whether China would act to take control of Hong Kong before 1997.

Beijing is also attempting to polarize public opinion in the colony by asking people ``to support ... the work of the Preparatory Committee for Hong Kong's smooth transition.'' The Committee is a special Chinese-appointed advisory group of more than 50 Chinese and Hong Kong public figures in charge of overseeing the transition to Chinese rule. But many in Hong Kong expect it to serve as a shadow government to undercut British authority in the run-up to 1997.

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