Consul Patten casts aside his whammies

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The Independent Online
CHRIS PATTEN ceased being a politician yesterday and took on the imperial mantle of a pro-consul. Speaking in London before leaving for Hong Kong today, the former Conservative Party chairman and MP for Bath put all double whammies behind him and showed he was now a skilled diplomat. No one, for example, could possibly have been gobsmacked.

The governor-designate of Britain's most important imperial outpost said nothing that could have offended Peking, Hong Kong, the Foreign Office, or Downing Street.

He bent his knee to Peking, but he did not kowtow. He said he hoped to remove misunderstandings; he wanted a constructive relationship with China and would deal courteously and firmly.

He talked about the 'historic importance' of Deng Xiaoping's 'one country, two systems' policy which will allow Hong Kong to remain a capitalist and allegedly self-governing Special Administrative Region after it is handed back to China on 1 July 1997.

Mr Patten said he would 'take soundings' on the difficult issues facing the colony - the airport and democracy - before announcing his policy before the legislative council in October. He gave nothing away. However, in private meetings with Hong Kong officials, businessmen, sinologists, legislators and bankers, Mr Patten has shown he plans a break with the past.

He hopes to substantially reduce Foreign Office power over Hong Kong. He told one meeting he was amazed by the volume of Foreign Office cable traffic between London and the British embassy in Peking on every aspect of Hong Kong's administration. To the horror of both British and Chinese mandarins, Mr Patten asked the Chinese ambassador in London, Ma Yu Zhen, for the personal telephone number in Peking of Lu Ping, head of China's Hong Kong and Macao Office.

One victim could be the chief secretary, Sir David Ford, whose power over recent years came to rival that of the outgoing governor, Lord Wilson. Sir David is closely connected with the multi- billion-pound airport project which destroyed Lord Wilson because it led to the humiliation of John Major. The Prime Minister had to visit Peking last year to sign a memorandum of understanding so that work could proceed. It opened the way for China's direct political influence.

Mr Patten has let it be known that if possible he would like to see a local Chinese as the next chief secretary, a civil service post equivalent to prime minister.

The new governor arrives at a time of stasis in China as bureaucrats await the outcome of the latest struggle in the Communist Party between the so-called reformers and those in favour of the status quo.

Already, though, his appointment has confused the Chinese: a former chairman of the ruling party; an outpost of the empire. Exile or conspiracy? Disgrace or promotion? Mr Major told Mr Li, his Chinese counterpart, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last month that on matters Hong Kong there was only one man to deal with - Chris Patten - and he had a direct line to Downing Street.

Uncertainty in China, page 11