Patten escapes no confidence vote in Hong Kong council

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Hong Kong - Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, escaped a humiliating vote of no confidence by the colony's legislature yesterday, after the first such challenge in 150 years of British rule.

Mr Patten had dismissed the motion as an empty gesture, but government officials still lobbied hard against it. The defeat of the motion in the 56-member Legislative Council by a margin of almost two to one was important in preserving his face, even though the vote had no constitutional significance.

The Governor answers only to the British government and not to the legislature, but a defeat could have been embarrassing for a colonial administration which has long prided itself on its consensus politics in the absence of full democracy.

The Democratic Party, once Mr Patten's closest ally in the council, proposed the motion to demonstrate its fury over last month's Sino-British agreement, reached behind closed doors, for a post-1997 Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. The party argued the British kowtowed to Chinese demands and jeopardised the rule of law by agreeing to a court with powers too watered down to guarantee judicial freedom in Hong Kong when it reverts to China in less than two years.

Mr Patten declined to appear in the council to defend himself, but his deputy, the Chief Secretary, Anson Chan, denounced the motion. "If our legislature has declared that it has no faith in the administration's commitment to the rule of law, then this Council has lost confidence in Hong Kong's future," she said. "Can we expect the world's traders to continue to regard Hong Kong as the premier business location in Asia?"

The business lobby, pro-Peking legislators and most independents voted against the motion or abstained. Allen Lee, leader of a pro-business party which viewed Mr Patten's efforts to introduce greater democracy in Hong Kong with suspicion, called the motion a waste of time.

The Democratic Party leader, Martin Lee, a prominent lawyer, said he was disappointed, but would fight against the Court of Final Appeal bill, which is scheduled to go before the Legislative Council later this month.