Britain's Hong Kong hypocrisy

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Just two years ago, Martin Lee Chu-ming, leader of Hong Kong's most popular political party, the Democrats, put down his chop-sticks and said, in his usual quiet but intense tone: "Mr Fenby, you are an Englishman, so can you tell me how that man can sleep at night?"

Not knowing which man he had in mind, I raised my eyebrows as we lunched together in the Hong Kong Club.

"The Governor," Mr Lee explained. "He has betrayed me. How can he sleep at night?"

Mr Lee was talking about a compromise deal between Britain and China over the composition of the bench of judges on the Court of Final Appeal, which will replace the Privy Council as the top court here when Hong Kong becomes a special administrative region of China next week. He said that Chris Patten had taken him aside after a meeting and promised to fight to the last for the formula originally backed by Britain.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," Mr Lee quoted the Governor as having assured him. But, for all the Ronald Reagan words, a compromise was reached between London and Peking, and Mr Lee was left pondering the perfidy of the British.

I don't know how well Chris Patten slept the night before last. Perhaps an occasional pang of something close to anger interrupted one of his last slumbers in the quiet of his mansion. If there is one theme which the last governor has drummed away at for months it is the complete unacceptability of the provisional legislature which will be installed in the early hours of Tuesday.

This body will replace the legislature elected in 1995, under the democracy reforms introduced by Mr Patten to which China took such grave exception. China insists that the provisional body is essential because the soon- do-die legislature contravenes the agreements it reached with Britain over the return of Hong Kong. And, since Hong Kong will become part of China at midnight on Monday, China's decision is the one that counts, at least until a new, partly elected legislature comes into being next summer.

Mr Patten thunders against the provisional body with the kind of barbs that would go down a treat in the Commons, but sometimes sound strangely out of tune in the rather different air here. Tony Blair announces that he will attend the handover ceremony at midnight, but boycott the swearing- in of the provisional body a couple of hours later. Robin Cook appeals to European Union governments to join the British boycott. Madeleine Albright says that the United States will walk out in a high-profile demonstration of the Bill-and-Tony show in action in defence of democracy.

And then, on Wednesday morning, as the sound of the British military band rehearsing the Last Post for its final performance here wafted across town, we began to hear another change of tune. It came first from the Americans. Yes, Mrs Albright would keep up her boycott, but the US would be represented at the swearing-in by its Consul-General.

Where, we wondered in the newsroom, did that leave the transatlantic entente? Had Bill done Tony down? But wait. Something even more amazing was happening. First a British spokesman here said London was considering its position. Then, as evening fell, so did the news: Britain would be represented at the swearing-in by not one, but two officials - the head of its delegation to the Joint Liaison Group with China and the current senior trade commissioner who will become Consul-General.

The decision to be represented by three at the swearing-in may be sensible and rational. It may even be, to use a word which Mr Patten's aides have flung at me with contempt in the past, be pragmatic. The future Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, and others against whom Britain bears no public grudge will be sworn in at the same time. To have been completely absent would have been a slur on them, and hardly the best way of kicking off a new relationship with the former colony.

But all this had been known when Mr Blair, Mr Cook and Mr Patten were going on about the solemn nature of their boycott. When I saw him in Peking a couple of weeks ago, China's Foreign Minister said, in the most relaxed of voices, that it was up to the guests at the handover to decide which ceremonies they wanted to attend. The ball was in Mr Blair's court. He shaped up to drive it fearlessly to the baseline of democracy, despatching his Foreign Secretary to the net to smash Britain's European partners into agreement. And then, as racket approached ball, he faltered, and went for a dolly shot that bounced inconclusively into the tramlines of hypocrisy.

It was an all too symbolic final half-gesture. British policy towards Hong Kong in the last year of colonialism has been fumbling and deeply unconvincing. Whatever the debate about his reforms, Mr Patten has remained true to his colours. His masters back home in London have shilly-shallied between bathos and dither.

Last year, John Major promised us, Kop-style, that Hong Kong would never walk alone. Malcolm Rifkind girded his loins and went into battle with the Chinese, got nowhere at all, cut short his visit to vote to save Douglas Hogg's skin in a Mad Cow debate, and managed to antagonise just about everybody: only eight of the 60 members of the Legislative Council turned out to meet him at Government House.

Westminster and Government House spoke of a great initiative that was being cranked up by the finest minds at Her Majesty's disposal to shake Peking in its boots: all that emerged was the laughable wheeze of inviting Peking to go to the international court to test the legality of the provisional legislature. Since China says it is Britain which broke the rules, the chances of it agreeing are about as great as those of William Hague standing aside to make way for Chris Patten to lead the Tories.

Now we have the final fudge One of Mr Patten's senior officials who thunders against the coming changes and denounces the evils of pragmatism is reported to be about to nail down a job with the new regime. Several holders of British decorations have just been named in Mr Tung's first honours list. A leading businessman here compared Hong Kong to bamboo - it blends with the wind but never snaps. Mr Blair and Mr Cook seem to have absorbed the lesson.

Their motivation is as clear as the flotsam in the harbour. They want to put the Patten years of dispute with China behind them. Rightly, they see China as one of the major foreign policy issues for their government, and they must be acutely aware of how Germany and France are stealing a march in trade and investment.

But, again, they knew all that when they were striking their high moral tone over the boycott. Realism is a very sensible way of conducting government, but if you are going to act in a pragmatic manner, you only make yourself look stupid and hypocritical if you hand out lessons from the pulpit beforehand. Or is Hong Kong, for Mr Blair, as for the Tories, an afterthought, a faraway place over which empty attitudes can be struck since the electorate in Basildon couldn't give a toss? Maybe it's just as well that Mr Patten will be leaving on Monday night; otherwise he might have found himself obliged to resign on a matter of principles - or, at least, losing some sleep.

The writer is editor of the `South China Morning Post'.

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