HK officials try to calm fears on Patten's illness

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The Independent Online
CHRIS PATTEN is to enter hospital today for treatment of a heart disorder less than a month before his controversial plans for democratic reform in Hong Kong are due to be laid before the colony's parliament.

Mr Patten, who has been Governor of Hong Kong for just over six months, started getting chest pains two weeks ago. Subsequent tests found that, although his heart is functioning normally, there has been a narrowing of two of his coronary arteries.

There was no sign of the problem when Mr Patten, 48, underwent medical tests just before becoming Governor, but government officials yesterday played down suggestions that his stressful job might have been an important factor, saying he had held demanding jobs all his life.

There was no question of the operation raising any uncertainty about his remaining Governor until 1997, they added.

Since unveiling his proposals in October for a more democratic electoral system in Hong Kong, Mr Patten has been subjected to an onslaught of verbal attacks from Peking, and has met vocal opposition to his plans within Hong Kong from the business community.

Mr Patten has fallen ill at an unfortunate time, as his appointed advisory cabinet, the Executive Council (Exco), is this month discussing his proposals and is reported to be sharply divided over some of his reforms.

Exco said yesterday that the final package was still due to be put to Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco) by the end of this month. The main debate will take place in Legco over the next few months.

Yesterday Mr Patten was looking his usual robust self after a family holiday last week in Bali. Doctors said that the operation, which would be done under local anaesthetic, had a high success rate.

Mr Patten, whose Chinese nickname is Fat Pang, is a keen eater and has a struggle keeping his weight down, but he does not smoke and likes to play tennis. He has kept up an exhausting schedule over the past few months, rebutting mainland criticism one moment, and inspecting sewage plants the next.

Should Mr Patten's health problems unexpectedly worsen, John Major would be in a very difficult position. Hong Kong's anti-Patten lobby would look upon this as an opportunity for Britain to replace the Governor with someone more sympathetic to China. At the same time, Mr Patten's pro-democracy supporters would be on the look-out for any weakening in London's newly found inclination to stand up to China.

Mr Patten telephoned Mr Major on Sunday to tell him of the operation. The two men are close friends and the Prime Minister was said to have expressed support and sympathy. Yesterday the top mainland official in Hong Kong, Zhou Nan, also said he hoped that Mr Patten would recover soon.

The most brutal judgement on what a setback to Mr Patten's health might mean for the chances of his package passing through Legco unscathed will come today when the Hong Kong stock market opens.

(Photograph omitted)