Why Governor Patten has to go

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'PATTEN urges China to talk or be ignored on changes.' So said a headline over a report of Chris Patten's address to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London this week. For rather more than a hundred years after the British annexation of Hong Kong Island, Mr Patten's predecessors as governors of Hong Kong were indeed in a position to ignore China, or rather a deliquescent Chinese governmental system, and did so as a matter of routine. But a governor of Hong Kong who threatens to ignore China in April 1993 is dangerously out of touch with reality. And the same is true of those who keep him in office and approve his present reckless course.

The Governor's show of defiance of Peking has some fervent and influential admirers. They include much of the British press, which has cheered on Mr Patten's every utterance. One point from his address this week, however, betrayed the reality. In what was described by one newspaper as 'a great innovation', he insisted that the 1984 Sino-British Declaration was not just 'a brocaded frill' to grace Britain's retreat from Hong Kong in 1997 but a binding commitment to respect Hong Kong's freedom and way of life and its right to 'a high degree of autonomy' after 1997.

This innovation, as indeed it is, implies that 'a brocaded frill' was precisely what the Sino-British Declaration was taken to be before Mr Patten became the great innovative Governor of Hong Kong. And I believe that is exactly how it is. The Governor is trying to inject retrospectively into the Sino-British Declaration of 1984 much stronger implications concerning a democratic future for Hong Kong than the declaration was generally and realistically seen as containing at the time.

Peking, quite understandably, regards this innovative effort as an attempt by Britain to go back on its agreement. Hence the flow of 'not very useful abuse', which the Governor is now trying to shrug off.

This attitude on his part appears to impress a section of the British public. But it will make a difficult transition much more difficult than it need be. Mr Patten should consider more carefully (and if he will not, the Government should) his responsibility to those in Hong Kong who now trust and support him in his pledges for the future of the colony, but who will, none the less, have to adjust to Chinese rule after the People's Liberation Army has entered Hong Kong in a little more than four years' time.

Like all general agreements between state systems with radically different ideological and conceptual frameworking, the Sino-British Declaration of 1984 is a highly ambiguous document, deliberately designed to be understood in conflicting senses by the media and public of the two countries concerned. But among the professionals who prepared it, and the governments that approved it, there could never have been any doubt as to the substance of what it meant. Any ambiguities that the document contained will be resolved by the Chinese, in a Chinese sense, once Hong Kong has reverted to China.

The Joint Declaration states: 'The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the central people's government of the People's Republic of China. The chief executive will be appointed by the central people's government on the basis of elections or consultations to be held locally.'

That may be described as the business end of the Joint Declaration. The 'brocaded frill' duly follows: 'Rights and freedoms including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association (etc, etc to the heart's desire of any follower of John Stuart Mill) will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.'

They will indeed, to the satisfaction of the lawmakers, the central government of the People's Republic of China. And what that government actually has in mind for the people of Hong Kong was indicated in anterior statements made authoritatively in Peking.

The Chinese News Agency had said, on 16 November 1983, that'after 1997 China's patriotic compatriots in Hong Kong will elect their own representatives in the local administration'. Deng Xiaoping corroborated this when he said, more simply, that Hong Kong is to be run by 'local Chinese patriots'.

It is interesting that the Chinese leadership is reverting - back beyond the Communist tradition from Marx to Mao - to the more fundamental revolutionary conceptions of the Jacobins: the unbreakable alliance between freedom and patriotism, in which the patriots have a monopoly of freedom, the rest are traitors (actually or potentially) and the revolutionary leadership decides who the patriots are, and who the traitors. That is how it will be in Hong Kong, after 1997.

Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe, when they agreed to the Joint Declaration, did so under pressure of a warning from Peking that if they didn't agree, Peking would proceed unilaterally once the 99-year lease of the Territories (making up most of the present colony) expired in 1997.

When they agreed to that, Mrs Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey knew well that the declaration's fine-sounding guarantees of freedom of the person, etc, would be applicable, in the new Hong Kong, only to persons who meet Peking's criteria of patriotism. Dissidents are not patriots but traitors. Those in Hong Kong who fail to understand that after 1 July 1997 will be in deep trouble.

It is tragically irresponsible, in 1993, to encourage the people of Hong Kong to believe that a democratic future can be in store for them after 1997. A capitalist future, yes; and for many of them, that will do nicely. But if there are young idealists who believe they can enjoy greater democracy in the Nineties - even after 1997 - than they had under British colonial rule, then the consequences could be fatal.

On 2 June 1991, the Hong Kong Alliance for the Support of Democracy in China organised a protest rally by some 20,000 people outside the Hong Kong offices of the New China News Agency - which functions as China's official representation - to mark the second anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. If there is such a protest on 2 June 1998 to mark the ninth anniversary of Tiananmen, the probable result will be a renewed massacre. The British government, which, after 1997, can do nothing to prevent that outcome, should do nothing at this stage to encourage young people in Hong Kong to courses that are likely to lead to their destruction.

What Hong Kong needs now is a governor who is prepared to make the best of a bad job and work with the Chinese for a peaceful transition, in which Peking will see limited autonomy for Hong Kong as in its own interests and Hong Kong people will not demand things that are impossible for Peking. Mr Patten is not such a governor.

Mr Patten prides himself on his impish sense of humour (as in comparing himself to Dennis Skinner). This is quite an attractive characteristic, in certain circumstances, but it is not appropriate to the autumnal and forbidding situation of a late governor of Hong Kong. Mr Patten should be replaced, before the transition goes off the rails altogether.

(Photograph omitted)