Patten steps into HK firing line: Whatever the Governor announces tomorrow, he faces criticism, writes Teresa Poole in Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
FOR THREE months the photo opportunities featuring Chris Patten have been seemingly inexhaustible. The new Hong Kong Governor's props have included anti-drug sniffer dogs, kissable babies, Chinese dragons, his glamorous daughters - and even Baroness Thatcher, snapped with Mr Patten recently when she passed through. But tomorrow afternoon this honeymoon period is finally drawing to a close.

As the territory tunes in for his keenly-awaited keynote policy address to the Legislative Council (Legco), Mr Patten knows that however ingeniously he attempts at this late stage to restructure Hong Kong's political institutions ahead of 1997, he is in the firing line. If recent leaks are accurate, he faces confrontation with China over moves to democratise the system further, criticism from some conservatives who will no longer enjoy their accustomed prominence, and a lambasting by some of the vocal pro-democracy lobby for not doing enough to give directly-elected politicians a greater role.

If those diverse congregations were not enough, he, unlike previous Foreign Office appointees, also has an eye on a political future back in Britain, where there is yet another audience, one largely unfamiliar with the impossible difficulties of squaring Hong Kong's political circle.

At least there can be few people left in the colony who are unaware that it is his big day. Last week, some 2,674 tickets were snapped up within an hour for the unprecedented public 'Question Times' with the Governor scheduled for later this week, and extra shows have now been laid on.

The focus tomorrow will be on Mr Patten's planned changes for Hong Kong's political institutions, specifically the composition of Legco after the 1995 elections and the make-up of the policy-making (non-elected) Executive Council (Exco). He is likely to stress Britain's existing commitment to consult Peking about the 1995 elections and will also state his belief that nothing he outlines conflicts with the Basic Law, which governs how Hong Kong will be run after 1997. Nevertheless, he appears set to exploit to the full what little freedom is left to him.

Although Britain is publicly committed to pressing China for an increase in the number of Legco seats to be directly elected in 1995 (20 out of 60) there is little chance of this happening. So Mr Patten looks likely to concentrate on democratising areas not covered by the Basic Law. At the local government level - district boards, and urban and regional councils - a third of the seats are still filled by appointment. In the next local elections, due in 1994, all are likely to be directly elected.

Turning to Legco, where the Basic Law stipulates that 10 seats in 1995 should be filled by members appointed by an 'Election Committee', Mr Patten may opt to fill the committee with directly elected local politicians. The 'functional constituencies', quasi-representative professional and business bodies that will choose the other 30 seats, are also likely to be rigorously overhauled.

None of this will please China, or ease the stalemate with Peking over finance for the new airport project. Mr Patten's enthusiasm to see Legco also set up a committee system, empowered to call senior civil servants to account, will please Peking even less.

The best guess on the future of Exco is that it will be comprised of non-political figures, appointed by Mr Patten for their individual expertise. A decision not to appoint any of the directly elected United Democrats would be met by strong protests from the liberals. At the same time, some Hong Kong luminaries with close links to pro-China business lobbies may be dropped from Exco. What Mr Patten will outline is how he wants the relationship to develop between Exco and Legco. And, perhaps most crucially, how the newly politicised parties sitting in Legco can play a constructive role, knowing that they will be in perpetual opposition.

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