Leading Article: Fight the last colonial fight, Sir Christopher

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The Independent Online
There has been nothing so democratic in our ownership of Hong Kong as our preparations for the leaving of it. For more than 150 years, Britain saw little reason to consult the people of Hong Kong on the governance of our wealthy little Asian colony. As next year's handover to Chinese rule has crept nearer, Sir Christopher Patten, the last Governor, has been assiduous, energetic, even strident in setting up minimally democratic structures and insisting that Peking must respect them. Is this hypocrisy? Or cheek? Or is it simply the least we could do for our former citizens before we handed them over to the world's last Communist superpower?

Sir Christopher has not always played his few cards well. But the sniping of Chinese apologists in this country, and the occasional lack of support from the Government to which he once belonged, are undeserved. The last Governor has been fighting an impossible battle. He will not get his way. Peking will abolish LegCo, the democratically elected but tediously entitled Hong Kong assembly, next year. It will impose its own hand-picked assembly and its own place-man as chief executive. But the fact that Sir Christopher's battle was fought at all will make it harder for Peking to ignore political and human rights in Hong Kong. The democratic forces in our last significant colony have been mobilised as never before. The attention of the world has been focused on China's behaviour from July onwards. Neither are worth a great deal, but both are worth something.

The China-sympathisers, led by our former ambassador to Peking, Sir Percy Cradock, argue that Patten's obstinacy has forced Peking to become more obdurate. In other words, China would have taken a more liberal approach to a post-British Hong Kong if we had not insisted on rubbing their noses in the dangerous concept of democracy. We doubt it. The transition would have been fraught with dangers in either case. But the presence of a vocal and active democratic movement in Hong Kong - little of which existed before - should help to persuade Peking to respect Hong Kong's radically different history and political culture. These differences are understandably threatening to the Communist gerontocracy, but also vitally important to them. In the end, Peking's own best political and economic interests are served by a successful Hong Kong, and this must be a Hong Kong that remains united with the Western world although re-connected to China.

At this late stage, Patten is no longer in a position to push out the boundaries of liberalisation. But in his final annual policy speech yesterday he signalled his intention to kick and scream to the end to defend the advances he has made. In particular, he warned Peking that he would have no truck with its alternative, unelected assembly. He also came his closest yet to stating that the scrapping after the July handover of his own, democratic infant - LegCo - would be illegal, and a direct breach of the Sino-UK joint declaration on Hong Kong. He also rejected China's criticisms of his Bill of Rights and, quite rightly, ridiculed the idea that Hong Kong people do not care about human rights or politics. Although Sir Christopher has less than nine months left in charge, he let it be known that he intends to keep his hand on the helm by setting out a series of new, supposedly non-controversial measures to improve "quality of life". The territory's democracy camp complained that this was not enough. They demanded some form of further "action" by Sir Christopher, and Britain, to warn Peking off. It is not at all clear what they seriously think Sir Christopher can do, over and above what he is doing.

Sir Percy Cradock and his ilk argue that there is no point in upsetting the Chinese with the handover so close. But then they have never shown any inclination to hold the Chinese to the spirit, or many of the letters, of the agreements they helped to negotiate with Peking. The view of the Cradockites appears to be that our only duty to Hong Kong is economic: our final task is to leave the territory in good shape as an efficient money-making machine. That is the best hope for the territory's future, they say; to attempt anything more is not only foolish and irresponsible, but arouses impossible hopes among the populace. This ignores the community's enthusiastic participation in last year's Legislative Council election.

The reality is that economic development does not take place in a political vacuum. When life ceases to be just a struggle for existence, people begin to think for themselves, a lesson societies all over east Asia are learning (despite all the loose talk about "Asian values"). Hong Kong thrived within the stuffy, but benign anomaly of British colonial status. That does not mean it would thrive under autocratic rule from China. Under British rule, there was no democracy but there was little state control either (some might argue, too little). Despite its change of status - one might say because of its change of status - a sophisticated and prosperous community such as Hong Kong will require considerable freedom of thought and freedom of expression if it is to thrive and grow. Direct democracy was always too much to hope for. But the fight is worth having if it persuades Peking to treat its returning daughter as a grown-up. As Peking is presumably aware, its success or failure will have a crucial bearing on a still greater ambition: the eventual re-unification of the mainland and Taiwan.