Leading Article: History will praise Patten's gamble

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The Independent Online
JUST under two years after Chris Patten's arrival in Hong Kong, the colony's Legislative Council (Legco) has approved the modest democratic reforms on which he had staked his reputation as Governor. Mr Patten's speech in October 1992 announcing his proposals for broadening the colony's franchise drew a torrent of invective from the Peking government, which regains sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. Peking vowed to scrap any constitutional arrangements that, in its view, breach the deal agreed between Britain and China in 1991.

The most important question now is whether China will, however grudgingly, accept that in next year's elections to the Legislative Council, 20 out of 50 members will be chosen by more than 2 million voters rather than 122,000-odd from the business sector, as envisaged by Peking. The chances seem fair that it will.

The aim of the onslaught was to intimidate the colony and make it fear political and economic disruption. The relative success of this tactic is shown by the number of appointed Legco members who voted against the reforms or for a watered- down version. Now that the Patten plan has squeaked through, there seems little to be gained by Peking resuming hostilities.

All the recent signs are that a more pragmatic spirit prevails in the Chinese capital - at least where sensitive economic issues are concerned. It is as if the leadership has come to realise that Hong Kong's transition will be much easier to manage if the two sides are negotiating like adults rather than hurling accusations against each other. The recent resumption of talks on Hong Kong's new international airport and on the future of valuable military sites looked like evidence of a new mood.

Mr Patten will face accusations that it was not worth antagonising Peking for the modest democratic gains in the Legco Bill. He can rebuff such arguments. The constitution as it stood was wide open to the appointment of placemen. The new franchise makes Legco far more genuinely representative, and faces the Chinese with the embarrassment of unpicking it in the glare of international publicity, should they so choose.

In other respects, the stakes for China have been considerably raised. Hong Kong's production equals a quarter of China's, with .01 per cent of its landmass. The Chinese are now the largest investors in its economy. Mr Patten calculated that, in the end, such considerations would enable him to win through without jeopardising the colony's future. The chances are growing that history will vindicate his gamble.