'China hands' trigger discord in Patten camp: Governor struggles to stick to his Hong Kong score

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THE BATTLE between Britain and China over reforms in Hong Kong was likened by a senior Peking official this week to two people wrestling over a musical instrument. They should be playing a duet, he said. He did not need to add that the tune should be the Chinese one.

In its orchestrated campaign against Britain and its chief soloist, Chris Patten, China always obeys the conductor. A percussive barrage of abuse can instantly give way, when deemed necessary, to a sweeter passage. Unison is not so complete on the British side: while Hong Kong's Governor tries to stick to his score, there is a constant rumble of dissent from 'old China hands' back home, who insist he is playing the wrong melody entirely, and too loudly.

China is adept at using mystery and flattery to submerge debate. Its air of unfathomability convinces many that they are unqualified to speak out, especially when they are cultivated by Peking and persuaded that past sufferings at the hands of British colonialists have created a debt of guilt. Others, in the words of an observer, 'think there is a 'China secret', and that if you immerse yourself deeply enough you might discover it. They become seduced.'

For all these reasons, only a handful of the most committed are prepared to speak openly on the relationship with Peking. The staunchest 'friend of China' is Robert Adley, a Conservative MP whose obsession with steam trains is indulged by the Chinese. Chairman of the British-Chinese parliamentary group, his outbursts against Mr Patten for 'gambling with Hong Kong's future stability' have led to him being labelled 'the member for Peking'.

More weighty support for China comes from the former prime minister, Edward Heath, who is much feted on his frequent visits to the People's Republic. He was recently quoted as calling Mr Patten 'quite the worst disaster of the 20th century'.

The Governor's most influential critics, however, are the former Foreign Office mandarins who ran Britain's policy towards China, almost without hindrance from the politicians, until the early 1990s. Every living former governor of Hong Kong and ambassador to Peking since the late 1970s is said to be opposed to Mr Patten's plans in private, though in public they have been more circumspect. Lord MacLehose, governor from 1971 to 1982, has accused him of violating the spirit of Sino-British accords, while Mr Patten's immediate predecessor, Lord Wilson, has expressed muted concern about the impact of the controversy on the colony.

Most waspish of all has been Sir Percy Cradock, the arch-mandarin: a fluent Chinese speaker, ambassador to China 1978-1983, chief British negotiator of the 1984 Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's future, foreign affairs adviser to the Prime Minister 1984-1991. 'Fatal, fatal, fatal,' was one of his comments on Mr Patten's style. Last week he warned that unless the Governor watered down his proposals, Hong Kong could face 'a period of siege for the next four years, followed by an abrupt transition to a harsher and more repressive regime'.

Former 'China hands' who are accused of appeasement, and who may be piqued because their advice is no longer heeded, are one thing. The question is whether their successors in the Foreign Office are of the same mind. The ambassador in Peking, Sir Robin McLaren, is rumoured to have sent anxious cables to London, calling for compromise; some others who helped to shape past policy are said to be siding with Mr Patten's enemies. A Foreign Office source dismissed this as 'rubbish', and asked: 'Where's the evidence? If there was any plot against the Governor, you would have seen some sign of it by now.'

One of the many changes in Britain's approach towards China since Sir Percy was in harness, however, is Mr Patten's open style. If the mandarins want to take him on, they will have to do so in public - an arena in which the Governor, as a politician, is more at home than diplomats whose instinct is to negotiate in secret.