Mr Patten was always known as a political "wet" in the Conservative Party. But even he probably never expected a shades-of-Thatcher attack from such an unlikely quarter. After all, Mr Patten last hit the headlines in Britain with a speech saying that Western governments should scale back public spending and follow the example of East Asian economies - such as Hong Kong.
Chen Zuo'er, head of the budget team working with Britain on the colony's 1997 handover to China, described Mr Patten as a "big dictator". Britain responded by summoning the Chinese charge d'affaires in London, Wang Qi Liang, for a diplomatic slap on the wrist.
Mr Chen had declared: "Since the arrival of this Governor, welfare spending has suddenly become a Formula One car. If it runs at the present speed, for not too long, it will crash and kill. On board this car are 6 million people [in Hong Kong]." Mr Patten, he said, was "a big dictator" who was "not qualified to speak".
Andrew Burns, Deputy Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, expressed concern "at behaviour which could be construed as interference with the promised level of autonomy for Hong Kong". He objected to "personal abuse of the Governor which was unacceptable to the British Government".
The Chinese embassy issued a statement which noted that Mr Patten was the "plenipotentiary of Her Majesty the Queen", and that the Chinese government and officials "are clear about and respect" this position.
After the summoning of Mr Wang, British officials sought to play down the mini-drama, insisting that this was "not a rebuke". It was, however, "unhelpful [for the Chinese] to start rocking the boat".
In reacting to remarks by a middle-ranking official, Britain is serving notice that Peking must respect Hong Kong's autonomy as a future "Special Administrative Region" of China. After June 1997, when Hong Kong reverts to China, policies such as welfare spending are supposed to be decided by the Hong Kong government and legislature, not Peking, under the "one country, two systems" principle. A furious Mr Patten retorted this week: "People should leave us to drive our own car."
Hong Kong officials yesterday suggested that the British expression of displeasure was welcome, but belated. "It's about time. There's been too little of that," one official said.
Peking is convinced Britain wants Hong Kong to spend as much money as possible before 1997, and plans to leave its ex-colony with heavy budget commitments. Mr Chen said that welfare spending had surged by two-thirds over the past five years. He criticised one Hong Kong official's pledge that welfare would reach "First World" levels over the next five years.
This latest row follows alarm in the colony about reports that China plans to set up a shadow government for Hong Kong before 1997, in a bid to influence policy and undermine the existing administration.
Hong Kong has an ageing population, which is putting greater strain on public spending. But over the past decade, economic growth has also made more resources available.
Kay Ku Yin-kay, the acting director of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, said welfare spending was only 1.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product and added: "Such a wealthy society as Hong Kong can afford it." In China, by contrast, people have seen their former welfare safety net swiftly eroded over the past decade as economic reform has shattered the old "iron rice bowl" cradle-to-grave welfare system.
Hong Kong officials argued yesterday that "Peking's bark is sometimes worse than its bite", and that the rude tone should not necessarily be seen as a harbinger of things to come.
The message from China to Hong Kong's civil servants was clear, one official said. "They're saying: 'In future, we're your masters'." Even from Peking's point of view, this may be a dangerous form of brinkmanship. China can scarcely want Hong Kong's civil servants to desert en masse.Reuse content