Hong Kong handover: Maybe it will be better when I'm not around'

Chris Patten will go with his upper lip held stiff, he tells Stephen Vines
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The Independent Online
The "Sinner for a Thousand Years", as Chinese officials have described him, has removed the crucifix from above his desk. The large pictures of his daughters are also in the packing-cases. The 28th and last governor of Hong Kong is ready to go, maybe not with a bang, but hardly with a whimper.

Chris Patten is not spending his last days in the colony giving a single inch to his opponents. Last week a pro-Peking legislator was taken aback to be told publicly that he should not worry too much about the coming polls because the new masters would probably find a way of reinstalling him in the Legislative Council even if he lost the election.

Rita Fan, president of the Chinese-appointed provisional legislature, called Mr Patten "Hong Kong's Last Emperor". He does not bat an eyelid when asked to comment. "I think", he says, "this is the emperor under whom she received her Commander of the British Empire; I think I'm the last departing emperor who was able to say that there's been more democracy when this place was a colony than when I'm gone. I don't have the impression that Mrs Fan is a lover of democracy and accountability."

Mr Patten does not regret introducing a more representative form of government but says: "What I would do if I had my time over again would be not to spend so long talking to them. We established pretty quickly that Jiang Enzhu (China's chief negotiator) wasn't going to budge, so we spent 170 hours, 17 rounds of painful talks, trying to get them to move more than a quarter of a millimetre. I think it would have been better if we had not talked so long but got on and legislated in 1993 rather than 1994."

He says he clearly remembers that "when we announced my proposals ... we did not know if we were going to be criticised more by China or the democrats. Some of us thought the later would be the case because Douglas Hurd [then Foreign Secretary] had told Qian Qichen [his Chinese counterpart] 10 days before I made my speech what we had in mind and Qian listened, very interested, and said `Thank you very much, Mr Hurd'."

"I think", Mr Patten reflects, "what particularly annoyed them was that I announced in public that I felt very strongly that the days when you could do these things secretly were over". The British feared a secret deal would be thrown out of the legislature, in the way the 1991 agreement on establishing a new court of final appeal bit the dust following secret Sino-British diplomacy.

The Governor is never shy about giving eloquent expression to his misgivings about the new order. Yet he always says he is optimistic about the future. Surely there is some disjuncture here? He demurs. "First of all, I believe that the things which are going to make Hong Kong survive are better long- term bets than authoritarianism or totalitarianism or Leninism or whatever you call it. Pluralism is the sound of the future in Asia and everywhere else."

Secondly, he believes that "the funds of Hong Kong are sound, good institutions, a robust economy, rich fabric of civil society ... all CH (Tung, his successor) has to do is to switch on the engine. With less than a week to go before it is all over, Mr Patten says: "I have a very strong sense that my role in a sense is historically presumptuous. It is high time for Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong. I don't mean by that I want to walk away and say it's up to you; it's nothing to do with me, but ultimately the sort of place Hong Kong is, is the result of the sort of relationship Hong Kong people have with Peking. Maybe it would be easier to work that out when I'm not around."

Mr Patten has been warned by one of his aides "not to blub" as he leaves. His upper lip is now in training but he admits to having felt a twinge when recently exchanging toasts with the Governor of Macau during which he quoted a passage from Confucius about how a gentleman should be defined: "He who behaves with honour in being sent on a mission to the four corners of the world will not bring disgrace to his lord".

"I found myself", he says, "having some difficulty in getting that out". But Mr Patten does not regret being away from Britain during when his party was ejected from office.

The devout Catholic Liverpudlian believes his faith was vindicated: "The Almighty has demonstrated that he's a Lancastrian. I've been very lucky to have been here".

Hong Kong's "first dogs", Whisky and Soda, will leave for France tomorrow, Reuters reports. The pair, whose antics often hit the headlines and provided material for cartoonists, received their inoculations yesterday before their flight to Toulouse.

Soda made the headlines in 1992 when she disappeared for four days, prompting jokes of "dognapping" for the cookpot. Dog is a winter delicacy in south China.