AN OLD Hong Kong hand watched a television report last week which described the latest broadside from one of Peking's hardliners as reflecting Chinese 'resentment' of Chris Patten's reforms in Hong Kong. He exploded. 'Why is everything reported on their terms?' he cried. 'The Chinese react hysterically to a proposal to give fellow Chinese a modest say in their future. But our mealy mouthed media play into their hands. And why do they give so much space to the contemptible chorus of greedy businessmen, Marxist academics and kowtowing diplomats singing over-publicised apologias for these thugs? Why?'

Ever since rich Romans paid ransoms for their silk togas, since reports of Cathay's magnificence lured Marco Polo to take the Golden Road beyond Samarkand, China has exerted a powerful spell. Today Europeans regard its civilisation with the same sort of cultural cringe commanded by ancient Greece. We all know that while Europeans stagnated in the Dark Ages, Tang Dynasty emperors were patrons of brilliant artists, poets and technocrats who invented paper, printing, astronomical clocks, the compass and gunpowder (used with a bow, to power Catherine wheels, not cannons).

In 18th-century France, Voltaire and his circle enthused about China's Confucian government, unfavourably comparing Europe's aristocracies with the egalitarianism of a ruling Mandarinate staffed by successful entrants to open examinations. Voltaire did not stop to think that only the rich could afford to give their sons the necessary years of education in the esoteric Classics. Confucianism - with its ideal of a Golden Mean, eschewing extremism and avoiding divisive confrontations - retains much of its appeal today. Whatever the shortcomings of the Chinese state, the Chinese themselves are respected as hard- working, well-behaved, child- loving, family-caring citizens.

Business people have always been dazzled by the prospects of selling to such a huge market, now numbering more than a billion people. A Lancashire textile magnate in the last century said that if only he could persuade 'John Chinaman' to add one foot to the tail of his shirt, he could keep his mills back home rolling for hundreds of years. After Richard Nixon re-established Sino-US relations in 1972, a Monsanto Chemical spokesman observed that 'if we can just sell one aspirin to every Chinese, that's a hell of a lot of aspirin'.

Unfortunately the dreams have never come true. Tiny Hong Kong buys four times as many British goods as China, and has provided far more lucrative projects for British industry than China ever has, or probably ever will.

China is a hard country to fathom and its languages are difficult to learn. Academics and diplomats who succeed in mastering Chinese culture see their role as one of explaining it to outsiders. And those who come into contact with China can rarely avoid being infected with guilt for the past, which China fully exploits. American missionaries and the alumni of such projects as Yale in China bred a generation of academics and US State Department officials anxious to make up for the years of non-recognition and support for Chiang Kai-shek. The Japanese are continually reminded of the Rape of Nanking. The British are not allowed to forget the Opium Wars. 'These are blood debts that must be repaid in blood,' the guide to Peking's Museum of History tells visitors from Hong Kong.

Age, size, remoteness, civilisation and an international guilt complex all help China to persuade the world to see it as it sees itself. In 1834 an envoy (or 'Barbarian Eye') from London arrived on China's shores charged with opening the China market. His name, Lord Napier, was transliterated into characters meaning 'Laboriously Vile' and the Chinese Viceroy greeted him with a stiff Edict: 'The Barbarian Eye, having come a myriad leagues over the sea, must be a man well versed in the principles of high dignity. I, the Viceroy, will not treat slightingly the Outside Barbarian. But the national laws are extremely strict. Let the said Barabarian Eye be more careful in future.' Laboriously Vile cannot but obey. Substitute Chris Patten's name for Laboriously Vile. Things are in many ways what they used to be.

Derek Davies was Editor of the 'Far Eastern Economic Review' from 1964-1991.