'Oppressor' Patten's return visit

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CHEERFULLY describing himself as "the last colonial oppressor", Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, stormed back to the former colony yesterday for his first return visit, which is attracting enormous publicity.

The publishers of East and West, his new book, took out cheeky newspaper advertisements yesterday saying: "He's making a comeback (but only for a few days)".

The new administration was so nervous about his return and possible displays of public support for Mr Patten that Tung Chee-hwa, his successor as head of government, was seriously considering remaining out of town on holiday so he could avoid seeing him and suffer the indignity of unfavourable comparisons.

He was persuaded to return, however, and will have a meeting with the former governor on Friday. Yesterday he described Mr Patten as a "friend". This differed sharply from the assessment of Mr Patten in yesterday's edition of the Peking controlled Wen Wei Pao. This newspaper called him "a superior colonialist" who had no understanding of China.

At a packed press conference Mr Patten dodged and weaved to avoid making critical remarks about the new regime and stressed that his successor had a far more difficult time than himself because of the Asian economic crisis.

But the Chris Patten who so angered the Chinese by trying to bring greater democracy to Hong Kong could not resist making a few pointed references which revealed his true feelings about what has happened since the end of British rule.

Invited to comment on how the Chinese government had behaved towards its new possession he spoke of how Hong Kong people had "made a commitment to continue living in a free society" and said China had gone along with it.

Asked about the decision to appoint Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon who vetoed publication of his recent book, as an adviser to Mr Tung, he replied dryly: "I guess Mr Murdoch will be able to give him some advice on freedom of the press."

Having been a strong advocate of laissez-faire government both during his time as governor and in his book, Mr Patten was asked about the Hong Kong administration's controversial decision to buy massive amounts of shares in the local market. He ducked this question, saying only that he supported the defence of the local currency.

Turning to Britain's new low-key policy on human rights in China, Mr Patten declined to make direct criticisms of Tony Blair's recent visit to China. He said proof of the new approach would be judged in the next 12 months if the human rights situation improved.

China's recent signature of United Nations human rights covenants was meaningless, he said, unless it was ratified by the government in Peking which would then have to submit itself to international monitoring.

Mr Patten said that his first return visit to Hong Kong was "enormously emotional". He would be revisiting old haunts, including his old home at Government House which he once joked would be turned into a "museum of colonial atrocities" but is now left mainly empty.

His love of Chinese custard tarts will be indulged on a nostalgic visit to his favourite Chinese bakery.

By a quirk of timing Mr Patten's visit coincides with that of his nemesis, Sir Percy Cradock, the former Foreign Office mandarin who emerged as Mr Patten's most vocal critic.

Sir Percy is in town for a board meeting. The two men have spent the better part of the past five years in a series of polemical exchanges.