The nerve of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, as well as its financial markets, will have to hold if Mr Patten is to resist the most explicit Chinese threats against the territory in several years. The outcome of this test is likely to determine his effectiveness as governor for the final 4 1/2 years of British rule.
In two days of fruitless talks in Peking, during which he was pointedly snubbed by the Chinese government, Mr Patten insisted that he would press ahead with his plans to widen the franchise for the 1995 Legislative Council elections. The Chinese side should stop simply criticising his proposals, he said, and put forward alternatives if they had any. Early next year he would have to introduce legislation on the forthcoming elections.
On Friday, as Mr Patten was returning to Hong Kong, his Chinese counterpart responded with the toughest language against any governor since the early 1980s. Lu Ping, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Office, accused him of violating Sino-British agreements, including what he said were secret undertakings to comply with China's views on election arrangements before 1997.
If the governor refused to obtain China's approval for his plans, Mr Lu said, they would have to be reversed after the takeover. He also threatened that China would close its airspace to flights using Hong Kong's proposed new airport at Chek Lap Kok, and would not take responsibility for its debts and contracts if the territory tried to build the project on its own.
Yesterday Mr Patten denied that any secret deals with China existed, and told Legislative Council members in a question-and-answer session: 'My proposals command, I believe, the broad support of most people in Hong Kong. Nothing whatsoever can . . . absolve honourable members of this council from the responsibility of taking a view on the future political development of Hong Kong . . . whatever the fireworks that streak across the heavens, whatever the noises elsewhere.'
He compared China's attitude to 'playing tennis on my own', saying: 'Unless the ball comes back over the net, it's rather difficult to have a co-operative game.'
Over the next few months, Mr Patten will have to hold together the support he has won in Hong Kong, a task likely to require all his political skills. So far the stock market has behaved reasonably encouragingly: it rose by 5 per cent last week, despite the acrimony in Peking. Its reaction tomorrow, with Mr Lu's blast covering the colony's front pages, will be of great importance. The governor also faces accusations that he is gambling with the colony's future, and that he has as much of an eye on British voters as those in Hong Kong. Taking up his tennis metaphor, Robert Adley MP, chairman of the British Chinese Parliamentary Group, said Mr Patten seemed to have 'served a double fault'. The governor, he said, 'would be well advised to remember that the Chinese hold the freehold of his little tennis court. Landlords whose tenancy is about to end, do not help their tenants by insulting the freeholder'.
In Hong Kong the South China Morning Post said in a leading article: 'Mr Patten has been on top in the propaganda offensive so far, but he will realise that some of his troops have a tendency to wilt under fire. Their support for political change and unilateral action may falter if prosperity looks like being a casualty.'