Leading Article: Patten finally bows to reality

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The Independent Online
THERE was a welcome sense of cool realism about yesterday's address by Chris Patten to the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Yes, the Governor conceded, of course Peking has the power to dissolve and reconstitute LegCo in 1997 when sovereignty is transferred to China (as it has said it will do) in reprisal for Mr Patten's decision to broaden the franchise.

We, the British, do not, Mr Patten added, see any good reason for Peking to purge LegCo instead of allowing it to work out its term, which would expire two years later. But, ultimately, that is the People's Republic's decision. 'The time has come to draw a line under the debate.'

Those like the former Foreign Office sinologist Sir Percy Cradock who believe that Mr Patten made a grave error in pushing his quasi- democratic agenda so hard down Peking's throat these last two years, will murmur 'amen' to the Governor's conclusion. But so, too, should those who felt that this country was honour bound (however belatedly) to put a little democratic flesh on Hong Kong's constitutional bones before it was re- absorbed into China.

There is important practical work to be done as the final 1,000 days of British Hong Kong tick away. And it is the ordinary people of Hong Kong (the overwhelming majority of whom were, incidentally, denied full British passports by Mr Patten's government) who will suffer most if continued sterile squabbling leads to an embittered and untidy take-over in 1997.

In context, it is wise of Mr Patten to hold out his hand to the Preliminary Working Committee, which was created by the Chinese as an alternative power centre to Government House and comprises Chinese and Hong Kong citizens, together with a handful of retired senior British foreign officials.

Until recently those who accepted nomination to the committee were regarded by Mr Patten's officials as little better than quislings. This posture could not sensibly be maintained. However provocative the committee may seem, power is accruing to it day by day. Its members should be invited to take part in the work of the official Joint Liaison Group, as Mr Patten suggests - and the approach to the committee should not be couched in a haughty manner that invites rejection of the offer by China.

Since his arrival Mr Patten has demonstrated a bold refusal to accept that a pre-emptive cringe is essential when talking to Peking. Yesterday he gave the first tentative signal that he knows he must be equally bold in attempting to reach accommodations with those who will inevitably rule Hong Kong in three years' time.