Patten lashes out at his critics

Battle between Governor and opponents of reform

Chris Patten, the departing Governor of Hong Kong, continued his epic battle with critics of his democratic policies in his last broadcast to the people of the colony yesterday.

In the latest shot in what has become a battle over history, he spoke scathingly of how wrong his critics were in devising a "whole philosophy of dealing with China that never thought a principle was worth fighting for".

He said that they had forecast that the political reforms in Hong Kong would bring "everything crashing down" - but they had been wrong.

While he was talking the biggest assembly of the old guard who made Hong Kong policy in the pre-Patten days was gathering for the handover celebrations. They include all the key past and present Foreign Office mandarins, with the notable exception of Sir Percy Cradock, who declined an invitation to be part of the British delegation.

John Major, who appointed Mr Patten and sanctioned the change in policy towards China, will not be present. But his predecessors Edward Heath, alongside the former Foreign Secretary Lord Howe, will not only be in Hong Kong but will attend the swearing-in of the China appointed provisional legislature - which is being boycotted by Tony Blair and Robin Cook..

For Mr Patten and his allies, the handover is inadvertently turning into an occasion to display the differences within Britain's foreign policy establishment between those who favour a softly, softly approach to China and the new school of China critics. The old school, led by Mr Patten's nemesis Sir Percy Cradock, are using this opportunity to broadcast their views on the folly of the new approach.

Yet it is now clear that the old school were responsible for the bungles which led to the return of Hong Kong. The biggest of the bungles came in 1979 when Lord MacLehose (one of Mr Patten's oldest critics, now in Hong Kong for the ceremonies) became the first colonial governor to meet Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader. At the time concern over the future of Hong Kong was not high and China had given every indication that it was happy with the status quo.

However, Lord MacLehose was worried about the issue of commercial leases in the New Territories which terminated in 1997 along with the 99 year lease given to Britain back in 1898. He told Mr Deng that investors were concerned about this and was about to propose that some arrangement be made for extending these commercial leases without raising the issue of sovereignty over Hong Kong. The extraordinary thing about the Governor's proposal was that no prior notice had been given to the Chinese side that the issue was to be raised.

In normal diplomatic practice both sides to a discussion make it clear what they want to discuss so that they can be well prepared.

Mr Deng either deliberately misunderstood the difference between the commercial leases and the treaty with Britain over the New Territories, or was simply incensed by what he saw as a suggestion aimed at avoiding China's sovereign right to Hong Kong. He therefore launched into a long monologue asserting China's right to resume control over Hong Kong, laying down many of the conditions which have since been set in stone.

Lord MacLehose has recently been engaged in attempts to rewrite history. He claimed: "The funny thing is it wasn't me who mentioned it (the resumption of sovereignty) first, it was Deng Xiaoping". This is technically correct but economical with the truth as it avoids responsibility for prompting Deng to assert China's sovereign rights.

Lord MacLehose's economy with the truth suffered a blow when Wong Man- fong, a former senior Chinese official, recently decided to break his silence on the matter.

"We thought of bypassing the 1997 issue by declaring Hong Kong an historic problem which the two governments would discuss at an appropriate time", he said, adding that China was thinking of "extending British rule for another 30 to 50 years". But "they didn't give us a way to step down'.

In 1982 negotiations began for the return of Hong Kong. Britain started out by trying to reach a settlement which would allow China to resume sovereignty while Britain retained administrative control. However the Deng-MacLehose encounter had effectively put paid to that plan. China got more or less everything it wanted from the negotiations; Britain had a weak hand and played it rather badly. The result is today's handover.

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