Special Report on Hong Kong: A matter of conflicting styles and strategies: Earning a living without too much interference matters as much to the trader in the street as a measure of democracy, reports Raymond Whitaker

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, rises to speak at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London today, many in his audience will remember the menacing words of Zhu Rongji, China's deputy premier, in the same room last November.

Mr Zhu warned that Mr Patten's proposed reforms of Hong Kong's political system had led to 'confrontation' with Peking, and said: 'No one should expect confrontation to force us into concessions. No one should make any mistake about this . . . The Chinese government and people have always been absolutely firm on matters of principle.'

Those who follow Hong Kong affairs do not expect the Governor's speech to be as dramatic. Unless he chooses the occasion for a radical departure (or rewrites his script to confound predictions such as this), he will describe his proposed reforms of Hong Kong's political system as modest, eminently fair and reasonable, declare his willingness to talk to China about them at any time without pre- conditions and urge Peking to come up with constructive ideas, instead of merely hurling abuse at him. The essence of his strategy is to repeat his line calmly in the hope that China will realise that it is looking unreasonable and temper its position.

Nine months after he was sworn into office, however, legislation to implement his political reforms is still pending. Several development projects, including the planned new airport at Chek Lap Kok, remain hostage to Peking's anger, and work on the transition to Chinese control of Hong Kong in 1997 has come to a virtual standstill. The mainland has conducted a campaign against him of a virulence not seen since the Cultural Revolution, and is threatening to replace the territory's governing institutions if he does not come into line.

After a succession of Foreign Office mandarins running Hong Kong, Mr Patten's style undoubtedly grates on his Chinese opponents. But that is not at the heart of the dispute. Nor is it even his proposed reforms, which, shorn of their complexities, represent only a modest increase in democracy for Hong Kong's people - something he readily admits.

The Governor is having to play the lightning-rod in a belated attempt by Britain to rescue what autonomy it can for Hong Kong after 1997. He cannot admit that this is a fundamental change in the British approach, let alone that the conciliatory policy it replaced is now considered mistaken. The mainland apart, he has to contend with the criticism that what he is attempting is laudable, but too late; that having sold out Hong Kong previously, Britain is simply making things worse by antagonising Peking.

Even if he achieves nothing else, however, Mr Patten has forced China to think about how to woo Hong Kong opinion as it seeks to isolate him and his masters. Peking has retreated somewhat from the kind of crude, specific threats which alarmed even its friends in Hong Kong. In December, for example, it implied that every contract and franchise which extended past 1997 required its approval, but had to backtrack when anxious taxi-drivers and street traders began to ask if this affected their municipal licences. It illustrated the gulf in understanding between those steeped in a system of Communist patronage and those habituated to Hong Kong's rule of law.

Seen from the perspective of the taxi driver or street hawker, much of the war among Hong Kong's political elite, the Governor and China is an abstraction. He or she hopes there will be a measure of democracy after 1997, but earning a living without too much corruption or interference from arbitrary officialdom matters as much, if not more. The growing number of public figures and business people seeking to make friends with Peking is another reminder to the ordinary Hong Konger that he has no choice but to make the best of it after the British have gone.

The economic ties between Hong Kong and China, particularly the booming southern coastal provinces, are becoming tighter. In many respects the colony and the Shenzhen special economic zone across the border, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese work in Hong Kong-owned factories and assembly plants, are already a single economic unit. Nothing that passes between Mr Patten and the Chinese leadership is likely to affect this in any lasting way - something the Hong Kong stock exchange appears to be taking into account.

For Mr Patten, seeking to extract the best possible deal for Hong Kong in the dying days of British rule, the main problem may not be whether he is doing the right thing or the wrong one, but whether he can beat off Chinese attempts to make him seem an irrelevance.