In Coventry, in Hong Kong

No one is talking to Governor Chris Patten, Stephen Vines discovered - not even his own staff
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The Independent Online
Was nature conspiring to produce the appropriate atmospherics? Outside the Governor's office a furious storm was bellowing, the skies emptying with cascades of rain. Inside sat Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, mildly amused by the weather's histrionics: "Wagnerian" he called them. Meanwhile, he was not in the least dismayed to be asked, on the third anniversary of his appointment, how it felt to be the most isolated governor in Hong Kong's history.

For not a single Chinese official will even speak to Chris Patten. The leaders of the business community shun him like a bad smell and even members of his civil service are discreetly erecting barriers between themselves and their boss. Now even the democratic camp, which entered into a tactical alliance with the Governor to push through his reform programme, has taken against him.

"The British colonial governor is not going to have many people queuing up to go into the trenches with him," says Mr Patten without rancour, describing himself in the third person to somehow depersonalise the issue. "I think the pity of it is that so much political comment in Hong Kong depends on two letters on the word processor: it's either 'c' for confrontation or 'k' for kowtow."

His argument is that although Hong Kong's politicians, businessmen and other community leaders may be shunning him, the public is backing him. "If this government was able to stand for re-election it would win at a canter," he says in the safe knowledge that the claim can never be put to the test. Yet he has a point. His personal opinion-poll ratings are falling but still register a roughly 50 per cent satisfaction score and, despite the fact that practically every single member of the legislature is now opposed to the Governor, the government still gets practically all its Bills and spending proposals through the chamber unscathed.

However, Patten now faces one of the biggest legislative tests of his governorship, with the coming attempt to enact the Sino-British deal on the establishment of a new court of final appeal. Mr Patten's former wary allies in the democratic camp are so angry about the deal that they have tabled an unprecedented motion of no-confidence in the Governor. Even members of other parties, who can normally be counted on to put their hands up in favour of anything approved by China, have expressed a determination to amend the government's Bill.

Concern over the future of the legal system is a cornerstone of unease over the future of Hong Kong. Opponents of the deal say that it will weaken the judiciary at its highest level and thus undermine the entire legal system. Unsurprisingly, Mr Patten see things differently. "It was a hole out of which I was delighted to climb," he says. The crux of his argument is that an agreement is better than no agreement, albeit one falling short of perfection, and that it gives the Hong Kong legislature a role in establishing the court, rather than allowing China to do whatever it wants.

Although determined to fight for the deal, he is equally determined, much to China's annoyance, to give legislators the last word, saying that if they give the "thumbs down, that's it". He accuses opponents of the deal of "focusing on a different political agenda". Choosing his words carefully, he says that their focus is "How will the government behave after 1997?". In other words, will powers now used benignly be taken up and used in a ruthless manner by the new Chinese-controlled administration?

The Governor declines to say what will happen - "my ability to provide people with the reassurance they want" is limited, he explains. "They will have to be answered by China. It's not a cop-out on my part, It's a statement of the perfectly obvious."

But Mr Patten's position is inherently untenable. He has simultaneously to assert the authority of the colonial administration and "do exactly the same things right down to the wire on 30 June 1997", while not being seen as interfering with the new administration's business, much of which must be underway before 1997. "The Governor of Hong Kong," says Mr Patten, "would want to take more of a back seat the closer we got to 1997, but also the Governor of Hong Kong expected he would spend his first period being rotted off for wanting to duff up every Chinese diplomat on the face of the earth and his last two-and-a-half years being criticised for being a combination of Neville Chamberlain, Percy Craddock - whom God preserve - [his nemesis in the Foreign Office who is accused of inventing the British kowtow to China] and Willy the Wimp."

There is some talk around town about the Governor having finally been house-trained by his civil servants, an idea that will come as a surprise to those who still regard him with a mixture of fear and bewilderment; and one that certainly does not impress Chinese officials who took another step in their campaign to isolate Mr Patten last week by rolling out the red carpet in Peking for his deputy, Anson Chan, while pointedly insisting that Pattenremains persona non grata.

Is the Governor consciously cultivating the role of punch-bag, to take the heat off his local officials? "It's a very proper role," he replies. "I can draw lines in the sand more easily than they could." His point is that not only will he be off the premises in the near future, and is thus able to say things that would be held against those who are staying, but he can also demonstrate the extent to which the sovereign power is allowed to meddle in the territory's affairs.

And the mood in the colony? Mr Patten is circumspect in answering this question. "I don't think you find mindless optimism in large measure in Hong Kong," he says tactfully, and then runs through the usual buzzwords, including "resilience" and "success", which politicians use when talking about Hong Kong. But he adds a caveat, referring to the tens of thousands of key people who have taken out insurance policies in the form of foreign passports. "I don't think they want to cash in their policies, but I think what happens this year and next will go a long way to making their minds up."

And what about the preparations for lowering the flag? The question has clearly been much on the Governor's mind. The problem, he says, is that when you "go to the Foreign Office records and pull out files marked 'leaving', they are mostly about handing over to independent countries". Nothing of the kind will happen in Hong Kong, so the government has to steer a middle course between what will be a wake for some and a celebration for others. The thrust of the occasion will be low key, "not low key as a euphemism for skulking off, but in the sense that we are not ourselves trying to create a Festival of Britain".

As for Chris Patten, the ex-Governor, he is planning to write a couple of books on "some interesting questions in politics"; all other options seem to be firmly open.

A year after arriving in Hong Kong, Mr Patten, bubbling with enthusiasm, described his job as "the best in the world". Invited to repeat this assessment, he demurs and starts talking about "a job that matters", and about never being bored. Does that all add up to it being the best job in the world? "Maybe there's a better job," he replies, "being Chief Executive [of Hong Kong] after 1997, but I don't think I'm going to get it." At last he has found an issue on which he and Chinese officials can reach perfect agreement.