Letter: Avoiding abuse of power in Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article 'Another hazard of the handover' (2 July) is right to assert that Chris Patten's constitutional proposals could help Hong Kong to fend off the corruption, inflation and social unrest afflicting China. However, Mr Patten's detractors allege that his insistence on a greater degree of democratisation for Hong Kong than Sino-British negotiators appear to have agreed to in the past has become counterproductive, if not dangerous.

They argue that Hong Kong was a spectacular success and that the former governor Sir Murray (now Lord) MacLehose had licked corruption long before the first step was taken to democratise Hong Kong's government in 1981. So why, only now, are the British pushing for more?

Egged on by a self-serving speech at the Hong Kong University on 14 December, Asian observers of the escalating row between Mr Patten and Peking were invited by Lee Kuan Yew to believe that Mr Patten's democratic initiative was linked to a Western conspiracy to sap China's new-found economic strength. The idea is catching on.

China has gone one better by suggesting that in thrusting democracy on the people of Hong Kong while it still has sovereignty, the British are hoping to perpetuate their political influence and provide a precedent for other regions of China to demand political autonomy.

The real threat that Hong Kong holds for China is much less fanciful. It is that the all-powerful elite of Chinese civil servants who will come under Peking's direction in 1997 will, like their expatriate predecessors in the Seventies, be liable to depart from the cardinal principles of government by freedom and the rule of law and administrative probity in order to silence their critics and control the media.

Under a London-appointed British governor, such abuse of power was regrettable but limited. Under a Peking-appointed Chinese chief executive, it is likely to be extensive, oppressive and fatal to the atmosphere of freedom that fuelled Hong Kong's post-war progress.

Preventing such abuse of power is extremely difficult. You are right, of course, to argue that Mr Patten's proposals for a more broadly based legislature will improve its ability to check the executive. But past experience in Hong Kong suggests that the size of a legislator's constituency has less to do with his or her effectiveness as a monitor of the government than personal courage and dedication.

It is precisely such people who will be most at risk if Mr Patten's political package is sacrificed at the altar of quiet convergence.

Yours sincerely,


University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong