The Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, yesterday defended democracy in the Colony, dismissing arguments by some Asian leaders that autocratic governments were better at making tough decisions necessary for economic growth.
"Liberty and the institutions which sustain it have certainly not imperilled economic growth in Hong Kong," Mr Patten told 200 executives from leading multinationals at a conference organised by Fortune magazine.
Mr Patten, whose campaign for more democracy in Hong Kong has been criticised in Singapore as being counter-productive, said he did not subscribe to arguments that democracy and a free press were Western ideals. "My contribution to that debate is to say that it's certainly not an argument between West and East".
At a news conference later, Mr Patten said his speech was not a riposte to remarks by Singapore's Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, made during a visit to Hong Kong in 1992. Mr Lee had said that Peking could view Mr Patten's push for democracy in the Colony as an Anglo-American conspiracy to influence the democratisation movement in China, with Hong Kong as a pawn. But in apparent reference to Mr Lee, Mr Patten said that while he was not sure whether there was a difference between Asian and Western values, his own principles would not permit him "to criticise other countries when you go and speak in them".
"My speech today is about Hong Kong," said Mr Patten. He appealed to China to respect the "rule of law" after it gains control in 1997. Hong Kong was "a community, not a Lego set" to be taken apart and reassembled by China, he said.
Referring to a declaration between China and Britain which guarantees that the Colony's capitalistic way of life must survive for 50 years after the Chinese take over, Mr Patten said, "I hope to persuade the Chinese officials that they can trust Hong Kong, that their concern be the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people instead of just valuable real estate."
His task before Britain loses possession of Hong Kong will be to ensure that China sets up a court of final appeal which will take over from the Governor's privy council, which administers the Colony.
"Hong Kong's stability is not a threat to anyone else's security," said Mr Patten. "We're about as threatening as a pussycat."
The governor also said he wanted to obtain a promise from the Chinese which would safeguard the special status of Hong Kong citizens' and their rights of travel outside the Communist republic.
"This is important for their peace of mind," he said of Hong Kong's teeming 5.8 million population, many of whom fled China in the first place to escape turmoil and hardship.
Baroness Thatcher, the Singaporean Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, the Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and the former US defense secretary Dick Cheney were all at the Global Forum conference.
Although Lady Thatcher was applauded on her entrance, she attended only as a delegate. Her speech was given in private, to the 150 delegates, and she later refused to meet reporters.