Patten still upbeat on HK transition: Governor tells MPs political dispute with China will not hold back colony's development

IT WAS an impressive performance. Chris Patten was back in the Palace of Westminster. He spoke to MPs, not as a member of the Cabinet, but as Governor of Hong Kong, explaining Britain's confrontation with China over the colony's 'extremely moderate aspirations' for democracy.

In testimony before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee he denied he alone was driving policy on Hong Kong and dismissed scathing criticism from the group of retired foreign office mandarins, led by Sir Percy Cradock, Margaret Thatcher's former foreign policy adviser, that Mr Patten was being 'indefensibly reckless' and should back down to prevent a backlash after Peking resumed sovereignty of the colony in 1997.

'If you have never got a bottom line,' Mr Patten rejoined, 'if there is always a lower ground floor whenever people think you have got to the bottom of the lift shaft, then I don't think you get very good settlements out of negotiations.'

The Governor gave a surprisingly upbeat assessment of Hong Kong's future. He believed the failure to agree on political matters would not hold back the colony's development, nor affect Anglo-Chinese trade. But Britain's decency and honour were on the line in the face of 'irrational and largely rhetorical' attacks from China over plans to introduce democratic reforms for local body elections this year and Legislative Council elections next year. The arrangements were the last great issue in the transition to Peking sovereignty in 1997, he said.

'We are not trying to increase the pace of democratisation in Hong Kong,' Mr Patten declared. 'What we are trying to do is insure that an agreed process of democratisation is credible and fair.' The government's proposals represented the middle ground of Hong Kong opinion and were necessary to safeguard its prosperity and way of life.

'I would like agreement (with China), if an honourable agreement in Hong Kong's interests is achievable. But a bad agreement, an agreement which did not guarantee credible elections would be very bad for Hong Kong. If we upend the level playing-field for elections to the legislature (which makes the laws), what would that do for the independence and impartiality of the judiciary that has to enforce them? . . . I do not see how you can possibly guarantee the rule of law in Hong Kong if the arrangement for the election of its legislative body are fundamentally flawed.'

The House of Commons committee is conducting hearings into Britain's relations with China in the run-up to 1997. Peking claims that the so-called Patten proposals violate the 1984 Joint Declaration which enshrined the principle of 'one country, two systems' and guaranteed elections and autonomy for Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China when Britain gave up its control.

There was laughter when Mr Patten quoted Sir David Akers-Jones, a former acting governor of Hong Kong and now adviser to the Chinese government, as saying it was not China's style to rig elections, but Peking did like to know the results before they were held.

Asked if he thought a referendum was appropriate to test Hong Kong opinion following the breakdown in negotiations between Britain and China last month, Mr Patten said it 'won't tell us anything we don't already know' - that there was overwhelming support for the proposals. Nor did he wish to tweak Peking's tail. 'The Chinese would see a referendum as the ultimate sin because it gives the people a right to self-determination.'

He hoped 'fervently and sincerely' that talks with China would resume, though time was very short. 'At any time when the Chinese give us the nod our officials will be on the plane to Peking.' Should the stalemate continue, Britain would go ahead with its plans to widen the franchise and publish a 'factual account' of the talks showing why they had failed.

Mr Patten dismissed threats that the People's Liberation Army might invade before 1997 as 'part of the Wagnerian background music which the people of Hong Kong have listened to'.