Mr Patten's approach is far- sighted because he understands that China's (and Hong Kong's) future is being shaped by the profound socioeconomic transformation taking place in mainland China and among other newly industrialised countries in East Asia. This socioeconomic change breeds demands for parallel political liberalisation and democratisation. It is bringing great pressure to bear on authoritarian governments in Peking and throughout the region.
China's Leninist leaders are on a slippery slope to extinction, and they very well may not be in power in 1997. The Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 and the bold but widespread dissidence they represented is the harbinger of the future. Yet Mr O'Brien perversely dismisses these would-be demonstrators and ashamedly argues that the British government should do nothing to encourage such dissent because it invites repression from Peking's Leninists.
This appeasing and distorted line of argument has emanated from the corridors of power in Whitehall for far too long, and it is precisely what Mr Patten is fighting against. His struggle with Peking is difficult enough; he does not need to contend with latter-day Chamberlains in London, who look the other way while delivering eight million Hong Kongers into the jaws of a proven ruthless regime.
Mr Patten's attempts to give the people of Hong Kong a legitimate say in casting their destiny (and he is doing no more than that) comes at the eleventh hour, but it is better late than never. His proposals for broadening democratic enfranchisement in the colony are creative and entirely within the intentionally ambiguous stipulations of the Basic Law - ambiguousness that Mr O'Brien implies should be filled by Peking's autocrats.
By presenting Peking with a fait accompli in 1997, Mr Patten will be following the mandate of Hong Kong's people, who have previously been denied by their colonial masters their legitimate role in shaping their future. Hong Kongers know China and China's Leninist leaders far better than does Mr Patten or the Foreign Office Sinologists, and they know their own interests better as well. Let us not forget that many in Hong Kong have voted with their feet over the past 40 years by risking their lives to escape the Communist tyranny of the so-called People's Republic of China.
Mr Patten has repeatedly said (including in his Chatham House speech last week to which Mr O'Brien refers) that he will only go as far as Hong Kong's Legislative Council desires. This is not only wise policy but also smart politics. A fait accompli of a democratised Hong Kong will be extremely difficult for Peking to overturn in 1997 (contrary to Mr O'Brien's stated and misguided belief), if indeed the Chinese Communist Party is still in power four years hence.
A more likely scenario is that Hong Kong changes China rather than vice versa. As the world's largest investor in the mainland's economy, it is already doing so. A democratic Hong Kong, like a democratic Taiwan, can be a catalyst in the next Chinese revolution - and China's leaders know it. The question is: on which side of the democratic revolution that has swept the globe and will inevitably reach China do London's leaders wish to be?
School of Oriental and
The writer edits 'The China Quarterly'.Reuse content