Patten plans a dignified retreat

STEPHEN VINES

Hong Kong

A year from this weekend, if all goes according to plan, Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, will be standing on the bow of HMS Britannia with Prince Charles at his side, taking a last look at skyscraper-rimmed Victoria Harbour, the focal point of Hong Kong.

Sitting in his office in Government House after yet another week of being told to keep his mouth shut by China's various supporters in the territory, he was in reflective mood yesterday, contemplating his departure from the territory, which ceases to be a British colony a year on Sunday.

"I'm not a complete mutton-head," he told the Independent. "I don't think Britain should be planning anything like a triumphalist departure." Rather, he thinks a "dignified retreat" would be more in order. But such is the poor state of Sino-British relations that China wants nothing more than a summary handing-over ceremony.

Wrangling over the departure ceremony has been going on for more than a year and it may yet all end in tears. But, says Mr Patten, "people around the world would scratch their heads in wonderment" if some reasonable agreement cannot be reached.

Whether Mr Patten likes it or not, he is part of the problem. China calls him a "criminal through the ages" and cannot bear the idea of having the Governor play any significant role in the hand-over ceremonies. Mr Patten, displaying self-conscious diplomacy, denies that this is the problem.

It is unclear whether many Hong Kong people care much about how the British depart. They are becoming an increasingly marginal factor in the colony's affairs. Mr Patten admits that a "bad flavour" was created by Britain's failure to furnish Hong Kong's British passport holders with the right of abode in Britain. He argues that people "feel as strongly as they do because Britain is having to end this particular story of empire in a totally different way from all the others. Here a free society is being handed over to a society which, shall we say, has a different view of freedom".

Although the Governor was criticising the British Government, this sort of comment is guaranteed to make official Chinese hackles rise.

Peking cannot forgive him for pursuing the modest political reforms which gave rise to a form of more representative government. But he is adamant in expressing absolutely no regrets for having pressed ahead with the reform programme.

"There was no better way," he said, to achieve reforms which, he argues, formed a core part of the sovereignty transfer agreement. His critics say that if he had handled China more carefully, a greater degree of lasting change could have been achieved. "That's a cop-out," he sniffs, insisting there was no alternative to implementing policies supported by most of the population.

Despite the almost total breakdown of communication between the Governor and his Chinese counterparts he is "absolutely certain" that he will be able to return to Hong Kong after he leaves, following "an appropriate and seemly gap".

Unlike many in the colony Mr Patten seems to believe that, given time, Hong Kong's pro-democracy politicians, currently shunned by China, will be brought in from the cold. Sooner or later, he said, their voices will have to be acknowledged.

While many in the democracy camp are increasingly despondent, Mr Patten, a politician to the cuffs of his tailored shirts, believes their time will come and he will then be able to visit the new Hong Kong. As for the democrats themselves, they have largely written off the Governor. In the words of one legislator: "I doubt he'll spend much time thinking about us once he's gone."

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