Profile: Hunting tigers out in Peking: Chris Patten, Hong Kong's pugnacious Governor

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The Independent Online
CHRIS PATTEN has been in London this week selling his tough stance on China to MPs and others. They wanted to know how and why the Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Hong Kong, had provoked the official Chinese press into denouncing him as 'a drooling idiot', a 'liar', a 'prostitute' and, more bizarrely, a 'tango dancer'.

To understand what Patten is up to, we must remember his past. For most of his 13 years in the Commons, Patten had a reputation as a good-hearted, intellectually fastidious and generally liberal-minded chap. But, as John Major's chairman of the Conservative Party in the early Nineties, he demonstrated that he could be ruthless when it mattered.

During the 1992 election campaign Patten distressed his more sensitive chums by banging on, in shameless style, about Labour's 'porkies' and 'double whammies'. Patten's uncharacteristically crude aggressiveness worked. It helped to win a dodgy election for his friend, John Major. But he paid a heavy price for his contentious performance on the national stage: he alienated the nicer sort of Tory in his own marginal seat and so lost Bath by almost 4,000 votes to the Liberal Democrats.

At 48, with no money of his own and three daughters to support, the hero of the hour - a man once talked of as a future prime minister - was out of a job. Major owed Patten a large favour. Patten said he was too young to abandon public life, accept a peerage and ease himself neatly into some swish City job. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, another longstanding Patten admirer, had recently concluded that successive Hong Kong governors had kow-towed too readily to China. It was time for a tougher and more political approach in the run-up to the resumption of Chinese rule in mid-1997.

So it was that Christopher Francis Patten became the 28th Governor. He brought to Hong Kong a whole new style from the moment his teenage daughters stepped off the aeroplane in miniskirts, to the delight of photographers waiting on the runway at Kowloon. Gone is the gubernatorial plumed hat and archaic coat. Gone is the pre-emptive cringe towards Peking, which used to come with the job. Gone is the snobbery that kept the Governor from all but the most elevated of Hong Kong's own Chinese.

The only concession to convention is that Patten's wife, Lavender, has abandoned her initial decision to continue working as a barrister. She was advised by the Foreign Ofice that a cabinet minister might be permitted to have a working wife, but not a Governor. She was told she must behave 'as the wife of a monarch'.

Patten's style, though, is populist rather than monarchical. He takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves and piles in. He goes to public picnics and barbecues with his wife and glitzy daughters. He appears at local community centres where he bats back questions fired at him by Hong Kong Chinese citizens. He made a point of attending the recent dedication of the Giant Buddha, a vast bronze statue on Lantau island, where he made all the right spiritual responses. Patten's cheery informality seems genuinely to have won him the affectionate regard of many local Chinese.

But his policy towards China is high-risk, both for the people of Hong Kong and for his own reputation. Ignoring the advice of the experts, he is attempting to entrench modest but provocative democratic reforms and shrugging off the consequent threats from the geriatric rulers in Peking as mere bluff; he is also disregarding complaints from a growing number of the colony's elite who have already come to terms with China and do not want anybody rocking the boat. But will the Communist Party of the mighty People's Republic of China really prove as vulnerable to Patten's pressure as the Labour Party did two years ago? Are President Jiang Zemin and elder statesman Deng Xiaoping no more than paper tigers?

Patten appears to think so. In London this week he has been as upbeat in private as in public, telling friends that he had 'never felt more at ease' with a course of action that he has been called on to defend. He will push the democratic agenda as long as the mass of people in Hong Kong wish it. And the 160 opinion polls conducted since his arrival suggest that his proposals have the support of two-thirds of the population. It is, he feels, morally right as well as tactically convenient for him to stand firm.

Even so, given the barrage of vilification to which he has been subjected from Peking and establishment-minded sinologists in this country, the Governor is demonstrating surprising - some would say foolhardy - self-confidence. Peking's cracks would not be made without instigation at the highest level. And, in a country that lays great emphasis on 'face', personal abuse is unforgivable and meant to be so. Peking is signalling that it wants both new policies and a new man to implement them.

Sir Percy Cradock, the retired Foreign Office mandarin most responsible for the Joint Declaration on the future of the colony and Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street foreign policy adviser, would agree with Peking. Cradock broke ranks last month in an unprecedented manner when he spoke to the Commons foreign affairs committee, dismissing Patten's approach as 'indefensibly reckless with the future of 6 million people' and 'entirely self-destructive'. Patten's flying visit was partly to enable him to respond in person to Cradock's strictures before the committee. He stood up for himself well.

Yet Patten is not by nature an ideologue or a man who revels in conflict. Indeed, he is despised by many of those who see themselves as the standard- bearers of Thatcherism red in tooth and claw. For example, in 1991 a Sunday Telegraph profile included the following words and phrases: 'insincerity', 'indecision', 'calculating', 'vacillating', 'supercilious', 'pretentious' and 'quick with the sneering put-down'. The article concluded that Patten's 'world view revolved around compromise and placating potential opposition' and that he 'prefers to dodge issues'. Three years on, try telling that to the central committee of the Communist Party of China.

So will Patten press on regardless? He insists he has not the slightest reason to believe that either John Major or Douglas Hurd (himself an experienced, foreign-service China hand) are losing confidence in him.

It is hard to read Patten. One clue to his future behaviour may lie in the fact that he is - most of the time - an apparatchik and an operator. There are lessons here to be learnt from his career since he left Balliol College, Oxford, in 1966 with a good second in history, having been taught by the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill.

His family, as modest in its origins as Major's, had never been political, and Patten took no part in Oxford politics. It is said that he tossed a coin about whether to apply for a job with Transport House or the Heathite Conservative Research Department. He ended up at the CRD, serving socially conscious, middle-of-the-road Toryism with a zeal that earned him Ted Heath's approbation and the invaluable support of the latter's political secretary, Douglas Hurd.

Patten was appointed CRD director in 1974, shortly before the Thatcher coup removed his patron. Although he was demonstrably not 'one of us', he remained at his post, drafted many of Thatcher's speeches in the Seventies and wrote much of the 1979 manifesto, The Right Approach.

But Thatcher removed him as secretary to the shadow cabinet shortly before the 1979 election - at which he became an MP. More than a little miffed, Patten adandoned his habitual professional cool. He joined the Blue Chip Group, who met once a fortnight until 1983 to co-ordinate opposition to the government's deflationary, monetarist policies. It was at this time that he published his book, The Tory Case. The jacket claimed that the author's views had been 'out of favour since the mid Seventies but had two centuries of successful history to draw on'.

This was insolence of a high order. It was also uncharacteristic and counterproductive - as Patten now admits to friends. In any case, Jim Prior talked some sense into him, and, after Prior had fought a fearful battle with Thatcher, she appointed Patten as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State to Prior at the Northern Ireland office.

He moved rapidly through junior ministerial posts before taking over the Department of Overseas Development. There he publicly embraced the Thatcherite belief that much foreign aid had been wasted propping up corrupt regimes. But he combined this, shrewdly, with a determination to fund viable projects in countries with sound economic policies. For the first time since 1979, foreign aid became respectable in Downing Street and the departmental budget went up in real terms.

So Thatcher demonstrated her confidence in the former rebel by making him Secretary of State for the Environment, charged with marketing the poll tax. Yet Patten was one of the gang of three ministers which told the Prime Minister she should stand down in the second round of the 1991 leadership contest. Small wonder her fan club regards him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Yet the other clue to Patten's personality is that he is a devout Roman Catholic with a particularly stubborn sense of duty and obligation. He believes that the extension of democracy is morally correct and, further, that for him to cut a deal in Hong Kong, or to cut and run, would be politically indefensible back home.

In 1997 Patten will still be only 53, and in search of one final job. If he can successfully stand up to China he could, in theory, return to parliament and re-establish his credentials as the moderate-minded heavyweight of Conservative politics.

But three years is a long time in politics, and who knows whether Major will be leading his party in 1997. Meanwhile, Kenneth Clarke is positioning himself on much the same ground as Patten. Clearly Patten has the necessary skill. However, in that contest he would not be facing a paper tiger.