Leading Article: Enter Patten, exit Sinologists

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The Independent Online
FOR anyone interested in diplomacy, politics and economics, there could be few more stimulating tasks than leading the colony of Hong Kong in the five years before its handover to the Peking government in 1997. In taking over as its last Governor yesterday, Chris Patten committed himself to representing the people of Hong Kong 'as strongly and as wisely as I can'. The question that will test his powers of judgement is: just how strongly will be wise?

There are many in the colony, notably leading businessmen profitably involved in dealings with the mainland, who are against antagonising Peking. For the past decade they have had the support of the Sinologists of the Foreign Office, of whom the previous governor, Sir David (now Lord) Wilson, was one and Sir Percy Cradock, Mrs Thatcher's adviser in the Cabinet Office, another.

Deeply imbued with China's history as a great civilisation, and not trained to defend democracy, their instinct has been to protect Hong Kong by not arousing Peking's wrath. Of the triumvirate of Sinologists at the helm since the Joint Declaration of 1984, only Sir Robin McLaren, now ambassador in Peking, remains in harness. His influence is likely to be diminished by Mr Patten's direct line to both John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd.

It would be pointless for the new Governor to provoke the Chinese government simply to display his democratic credentials. Yesterday he said that 'good co-operation with China is my sincere aim and my profound wish'. None the less, he has also already shown a desire to work with local political groups: one of his biggest contributions may well be to deepen their perforce scanty knowledge of how to operate in a political context. Before long he will also have to take decisions likely to arouse anger in Peking: for example, how hard to support the demand that more than one of the post-1997 members of the five-

person Court of Final Appeal (now the Privy Council in London) should be foreigners, not Peking appointees.

He will also have to decide how closely to be involved with the United Democrats, led by Martin Lee, who won by a landslide in last year's elections for the Legislative Council. The United Democrats are regarded as subversive by Peking because some support a campaign for democracy within China.

An allied question, one of those holding up agreement on the financing of Hong Kong's new airport, is: should United Democrats be appointed to the colony's decision-making Executive Council? The Chinese suspect the airport is intended to drain Hong Kong's reserves into the pockets of British-controlled contractors. Another crucial decision will be whether and when to remove expatriate Britons from the top three civil service posts in the colony, including that of Chief Secretary.

Mr Patten has one strong card: the astonishingly rapid intermeshing of the economies of Hong Kong and China's adjacent Guangdong province, economically the fastest-

growing region in the world. Hong Kong's best hope is that this will intensify to an extent that Hong Kong's continued prosperity becomes indispensable to the Chinese economy as a whole. Mr Patten will also hope that by 1997 a new leadership in Peking will be less paranoid about the political perils posed by a free society on its periphery.