Mr Patten expressed disappointment over the Hong Kong tycoons' failure to stand up for the colony's institutions in the face of China's resumption of sovereignty next year.
Not since Governor John Pope Hennessey was virtually hounded out of the colony by business leaders in 1882 has there been such a rift between the Queen's representative and the tycoons who have traditionally wielded both business and political power. Back then the governor was despised for attempts to lessen discrimination against Hong Kong's majority Chinese population.
The letter, sent yesterday, is signed by the colony's seven most influential business organisations, collectively representing just about all the most powerful businessmen in Hong Kong. For days they have been discussing how to respond to the Governor's remarks, which appeared in a Newsweek cover story entitled "Betraying Hong Kong".
The magazine quoted Mr Patten as saying: "Why is it that privileged people are prepared to sign up to those arrangements whose sole intention is to choke off the voice of those who, by every measure, represent the majority of public opinion." Mr Patten added: "They wouldn't be doing it if most of them didn't have foreign passports in their back pockets."
The business leaders say in their letter that "Mr Patten sees fit to criticise the very people who have helped make Hong Kong the success it is today. The attack on them and the reference to having foreign passports in their back pockets were both inappropriate and divisive".
The six-paragraph letter continues by saying: "Mr Patten, has, through his inappropriate and unjustified attacks on the business community, ended up doing Hong Kong a great disservice".
Although the Governor appears to have given up hope of mending fences with the business community, his spokesman, Kerry McGlynn, last night issued a statement saying Mr Patten "has always been an admirer and an advocate of the great contribution the business community has made to Hong Kong's spectacular success".
However there was a sting in the tail, as Mr McGlynn said: "The community will no doubt note that while a number of businessmen have chosen to criticise the Governor on the basis of something that he has never said, they did not band together to write similar letters of protest when threats were made to our human rights legislation, the independence of the judiciary, the political neutrality of the civil service and to our democratic institutions. There is still time for them to do so."
The row was not unexpected. Most business leaders are solidly lined up behind the incoming administration and have taken their cue from Peking, where Mr Patten is regarded as being on a par with some of China's other political demons.
Last night a government official described the businessmen's letter as "a release of pent-up frustration and anger at what they consider to be the way they have been side-lined, compared with the days when they called the shots here".
The business leaders are most upset by the Governor's suggestion of hypocrisy.
"In spite of this", they write, "the business community continues to stand steadfastly behind Hong Kong."
And standing behind the businessmen are labour organisations. In the bizarre atmosphere which now prevails here, pro-Peking trade unionists, were mobilised to demonstrate against criticism of the business community when Mr Patten returned from the US.Reuse content