To consolidate and to kowtow: Chris Patten will need all his skills as a conciliator if he is to make a notable difference in Hong Kong, says Raymond Whitaker

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A little after 8am British time today, assuming the wind is from the east, Chris Patten's aircraft will sink down into the tenements of Kowloon until the wingtips are below the level of the rooftops, and it seems that they must become entangled in the washing draped on every balcony. At the last second the plane will bank to line up with the runway, which extends into the harbour. Suddenly there is nothing to be seen but water; the bump of landing is the first confirmation there is anything solid underfoot.

From the air, Mr Patten might catch a glimpse of the earthworks for Hong Kong's new airport at Chek Lap Kok, his predecessor's downfall. Whether he is able to fly out of Chek Lap Kok on 1 July 1997, the day Hong Kong reverts to China, will be one of the tests of his governorship, but the end of 150 years of British rule on this corner of the south Chinese coast will bring many others.

It is too early to say whether the outgoing governor, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, was the wrong person for the job, or if he was just unlucky. The suppression of the pro- democracy movement in China, two years after he took offfice, and the subsequent collapse of morale in Hong Kong were beyond his control, but his announcement of plans for a new airport, the biggest project in the colony's history, was seen as a clumsy attempt to restore confidence. With China denouncing the plan as a plot to drain Hong Kong's reserves into the pockets of British companies before 1997, his pleas that a new airport was essential to the territory's prosperity began to sound desperate.

Eventually, John Major was forced to kowtow in Peking to save the project, giving the Chinese a say over Hong Kong's affairs before 1997. Lord Wilson was sent into retirement with a peerage, and Mr Major started looking for a politician rather than a Foreign Office Sinologist to oversee the last years of the transition.

According to one Hong Kong official, Lord Wilson 'ran this place like an under-secretary. Presumably Mr Patten will run it more like a minister'. Certainly he will deal directly with his good friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. The mandarins of the Foreign Office and its Hong Kong department will no longer be able to dictate to the governor. If China has been used to winning battles because Hong Kong is a higher priority for Peking than for London, that appears to have changed with Mr Patten's arrival.

Nothing in Mr Patten's career will have prepared him for the culture shock of his new job. It will be as if he had become a royal, surrounded by people who congratulate him on the profundity of every utterance, covered obsessively by the media, warned constantly that he is listening to the wrong advice. A cabinet minister can visit the chemist without causing a sensation, but not the Governor of Hong Kong. Enveloped in reverence, with a tax-free salary of pounds 150,000 a year, an entertainment allowance of pounds 35,000, a mansion, a yacht, a staff of 56 and a weekend retreat, Mr Patten may take time to discover that some will greet his arrival with cynicism or indifference, their eyes already turned towards China. Having almost certainly abandoned his political career at 48 - if he serves until the handover, he will miss the next election - the first thing he must determine is whether he can still make a difference.

As far as Britain is concerned, said one Westminster commentator, 'Mr Patten's job is to manage as best he can to get out without a disaster.' Many in Hong Kong hope he can do a bit better than that.

But even before he lands, pro- Peking newspapers in the colony have been deluging him with threats, warnings and abuse, mainly because he and Mr Major referred to 'the freedom, stability and prosperity' of Hong Kong when his appointment was announced. The words are those of the 1984 joint declaration with China on the territory's future, but the first of them had not been uttered by Lord Wilson for some time.

China can be expected to hold the new airport hostage until it discovers what is meant by 'freedom', and specifically what Mr Patten intends to do on two issues: appointments to the Executive Council, the most powerful consultative body in Hong Kong, and the number of directly elected seats on the Legislative Council. At the moment there are 18 out of 60. In 1995, under the 'mini-constitution' agreed with China, there will be 20, and Peking refuses to contemplate more. Mr Patten plans to take three months to make up his mind, before announcing his programme to the Legislative Council in October. That period will probably determine how his governorship is seen.

In Westminster Mr Patten was regarded as cerebral but likeable. Those qualities will be useful in Hong Kong. He was also considered a conciliator and consolidator, who always believed a compromise could be found. In his new job, however, he will find that many positions are irreconcilable, particularly when it comes to dealing with China. He will be forced to anger one side or the other.

There will be powerful pressure not to rock the boat. The business and bureaucratic elite, used to having their views listened to and acted upon, will tell him stability and prosperity depend on avoiding confrontation with China. Traditionally, he will be told, Hong Kong people have been more concerned with matters such as inflation than abstract political questions. Britain can make all the gestures it likes, but the colony will have to live with the consequences. These arguments, advanced by unelected figures, were accepted by Lord Wilson. For him, 'convergence' with China was paramount, the only hope being that Deng Xiaoping's 'reform and opening up' policies would make Hong Kong too valuable to tamper with.

One would expect the democratically elected (and defeated) Mr Patten not only to feel somewhat uneasy with his own imposition on Hong Kong, but to sympathise with those who offered themselves for election last year and won. When the voters were finally given the chance, they went unequivocally for people considered 'subversives' by China, such as Martin Lee and Szeto Wah. Apparently they were willing to live with the outcome. But the liberal wing is often chaotic and divided, it would antagonise China and many of its demands are difficult or impossible to meet.

Martin Lee's stand is one of principle, which always makes administrators nervous. What last year's election showed, he argues, is that Hong Kong people want the joint declaration implemented as signed - not weakened, as it has been, by subsequent deals with China - and that prosperity is not divisible from freedom. If the territory's democracy is imperfect, that is the fault of Britain, which should rectify it. Should all this be subordinated to the need for a new airport?

A decision by Mr Patten to bequeath a more democratic as well as prosperous Hong Kong to China is sure to run into loud opposition. If that was Britain's aim, he will be told, it should have started the process much earlier, before the joint declaration was signed. Neither Conservative nor Labour governments ever entertained the idea then; with less than five years to go it is too late.

(Photographs omitted)