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Patten embroiled in HK dismissal row

A scandal engulfing the Hong Kong government deepened yesterday after allegations that officials, from Governor Chris Patten down, made misleading statements about the circumstances in which Lawrence Leung, head of the immigration department, left office last year.

It questions Mr Patten's claim to be leading an honest administration and the integrity of leading officials, who said Mr Leung was not dismissed but left for personal reasons.

He denied this yesterday when he appeared before a legislators' inquiry and said he was told the government "no longer trusted him"; he was given the choice of resigning or being dismissed. He also confirmed he was the subject of a six-month corruption investigation for living beyond his means and that he maintained unusually close ties with Chinese officials.

His testimony before the committee united all shades of opinion in fury against the administration. Allen Lee, leader of the Liberal Party, said that if the government had been found lying to the people in any other country, it would be toppled. It now seems likely the committee will take the unprecedented step of summoning the Governor to explain himself.

Yesterday Mr Leung said he was harassed over a three-year period but had no idea why. He stressed that he was cleared of corruption allegations. However, other allegations have been aired, stating that he secretly supplied information to the Chinese government about Chinese dissidents and disclosed secret details of who had been given British passports under the British scheme which allows Hong Kong residents to remain in the colony but gives the option of an escape-hatch if the situation deteriorates under Chinese rule.

There were also allegations about Mr Leung's department allowing a flood of Chinese immigrants to come into Hong Kong. None of the claims has been substantiated.

Mr Leung went to some lengths to boast of his good connections with Chinese officials. Asked to give an account of what he did after being dismissed, he omitted to say that within hours he met Chen Zuo'er, a Chinese officials responsible for negotiating with Britain over handover arrangements for Hong Kong. This came to light after a legislator rushed into the chamber, saying a member of the public had called to say Mr Leung had been spotted with Mr Chen in a coffee-shop the day he was fired. Mr Leung confirmed this, saying he told Mr Chen he was "sorry, I can't co-operate with you any more". He added: "I had to tell him some of my feelings. I can't say I didn't give him the impression that I am being persecuted." Mr Leung also disclosed that he held regular meetings with Chinese officials, such as Mr Chen, "at which my work was reviewed and how to improve it" was discussed.

It seems extraordinary that the most senior official in a department dealing with highly sensitive matters should have been having discussions of this kind with representatives of a foreign government.

Last night Lam Woon-kwong, Secretary for the Civil Service, admitted that Mr Leung was forced to resign but said it "was his choice". He said the government could not have disclosed this previously because of confidentiality rules.