HONG KONG -- Frustrated that months of talks with China and new British concessions have led nowhere, colonial Gov. Chris Patten declared the beginning of the end yesterday to the yearlong, Sino-British stalemate over his proposals to expand democracy here.
But where that endgame will lead -- and whether it will affect what matters most here, this city's booming economy -- remains far from certain.
The bitter political dispute still could fester until this city's return to China in mid-1997.
Nevertheless, in a carefully worded annual policy address to the colony's legislature yesterday, the British governor warned China that there's "little time left" to reach an agreement on his controversial political-reform proposals.
He indicated that if no accord is reached in further Sino-British talks within weeks, he may risk China's wrath -- and its ability to induce unprofitable uncertainties here -- by asking the legislature to approve some form of his proposals.
"Everyone knows we can't go on talking forever," Mr. Patten said after his speech.
Beijing had no formal reaction last night. But a Chinese official here dismissed discussion of Mr. Patten's speech with a slur. "Those who have broken promises cannot be trusted," said Zheng Guoxiong, vice director of the local branch of the Xinhua News Agency, China's de facto embassy here.
Since Mr. Patten raised the proposals a year ago in his first policy address to the 60-member legislature, China has vehemently attacked them.
His suggestions essentially involve expanding Hong Kong's electorate and increasing the number of elected legislators from 20 to 39.
Foreign Minister Qian Qichen last weekend reiterated China's vow that, once in charge of Hong Kong, it simply would dismantle any political changes undertaken without its approval.
Mr. Patten also did not please PATTEN Hong Kong's democracy activists. "This is not about bringing more democracy to Hong Kong," said Emily Lau, an elected legislator.
"It's about the British trying to save face," she said.
Some foresee a lot more turmoil ahead. "It could get very rough, very painful before this is over, but this may be Hong Kong's last chance to debate its future," said Christine Loh, a legislator appointed by Mr. Patten.
Mr. Patten dwelled on the vitality of the spiraling economic links between Hong Kong and China. He also carefully sidestepped handing China specific deadlines.
But, he said, "We now have only weeks rather than months to conclude" the Sino-British talks on his proposals that have dragged on through 12 rounds since last spring.
Some of the governor's proposals would affect the colony's district elections set for next September, so final decisions on any reforms might have to be made by early next year to prepare adequately for that vote, Mr. Patten indicated.
If there is no movement in the Sino-British talks by the time of a planned early November meeting in London between Mr. Patten and British Prime Minister John Major, many here expect the governor to opt to press forward without China's assent.
However, some still do not rule out a settlement. "I find it difficult to believe that there won't be an 11th-hour, 55-minute compromise," Ms. Loh said, "because China doesn't want to wait on the sidelines for three years while Britain goes it alone."
Compounding the uncertainties, it also is not clear whether the legislature, which once favored Mr. Patten's proposals, would approve them now.
The governor's personal support here has remained fairly high, but sweeping attacks by China and Hong Kong's business community have chipped away at the city's willingness to oppose China's will.
Mr. Patten as much as admitted this in his speech, at one point seeming to paint himself an exit. "Your government cannot claim to be any stronger, any wiser, any more determined than the community itself," he said. "We can only be as bold as you."
At the same time, he disclosed that Britain has offered concessions to China that would water down his original proposals. These were meant to induce China to state criteria by which legislators elected in the colony's 1995 elections could serve beyond 1997.
This deal, rejected by China, was an attempt to insure that democratic activists already targeted by China for removal from the legislature could remain in that body.
But Martin Lee -- leader of Hong Kong's democrats, who would benefit from that deal -- blasted Mr. Patten for offering concessions: "China doesn't want anything but total capitulation. I still fear the governor is going to buckle under."
Mr. Patten, however, vowed in his speech, "We shall stick to our principles. We are not prepared to give away our principles in order to sign a piece of paper. What would that be worth?"