Fighting talk from Patten on democracy

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With less than nine months before Britain hands Hong Kong over to Chinese rule, Governor Chris Patten yesterday warned Peking that he would go out fighting.

In the last "state of the col-ony" address to be given by a British governor, Mr Patten condemned Peking's plans to scrap Hong Kong's democratically elected legislature and replace it with what he calls a "rubber stamp".

"I sincerely hope that even at this late stage, this bad idea can be thought about again. It is unnecessary as well as provocative, and we will have nothing to do with it."

At a press conference later, Mr Patten warned that if the Peking-approved legislature attempted to become a shadow government before 1997, its decisions could be challenged in court.

Mr Patten also warned China that he had no intention of becoming a lame- duck governor. The fact that this was the last speech, he said, "does not mean that government is closing down or is going into hibernation for nine months ... it is business as usual."

China has insisted that Hong Kong is an "economic city" and must not be turned into a "political city". But yesterday, Mr Patten referred to the refugee history of many Hong Kong families, and lashed out at the perception of a people are only interested in money.

Ever since 1992, when he unveiled political reforms which Peking denounced as far too radical and which Hong Kong's democrats complained were too mild, Mr Patten has been walking a tightrope. Yesterday's speech, and Mr Patten's refusal to go quietly, is expected to infuriate Peking. Mr Patten also rubbed salt into an open wound by insisting that Hong Kong would continue to increase welfare spending, something China's Communists have condemned.

Some of Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists poured scorn on Mr Patten's speech, saying he had promised nothing concrete to protect Hong Kong's freedoms.

Mr Patten said his greatest anxiety was not that Peking would usurp Hong Kong's freedom, but that some people in Hong Kong would undermine the territory's promised autonomy by running constantly to Peking for approval. He named no names, but Mr Patten has previously attacked figures in Hong Kong's business community, saying they have cosied up to China's Communist leaders, and often ask for Peking's blessing on matters which should have been be decided in Hong Kong. Mr Patten said his greatest frustration was that he had not been able to test the popularity of his policies at the ballot box.

However, Mr Patten said he was sure Hong Kong would weather the transfer of sovereignty and come out "glittering", and added he would "stand up and cheer" when it happened.

For all the brave talk, the participants in Peking, London or Hong Kong, all are now confronting the inevitable end of the British administration. Asked whether he had any regrets about his confrontation with Peking, Mr Patten said it had been a choice between confrontation with Peking or with the people of Hong Kong. "I know the difference," he said, "between right and wrong."