LONDON — London. -- Yesterday, Hong Kong got its new British governor and presumably its last, Chris Patten. In only five years, he will order the Union Jack run down and invite in the removal men from Beijing. Only five years to organize Hong Kong's complex society so that it survives the takeover with its important virtues intact. And, let us dare to suggest, only five years left to subvert China itself.
It is profoundly to be wished that Mr. Patten does not suffer the fate of one British emissary to Hong Kong, a certain Charles Elliot. As Queen Victoria put it: ''All we wanted might have been got if it had not been for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot -- he tried to obtain the lowest possible terms from the Chinese.'' For Mr. Patten, the challenge to get the best terms for a retreat already in progress, without the overwhelming firepower at Elliot's command, is more complicated and daunting.
In all its ex-colonies, from Ireland to India to Ghana, Britain introduced full-blooded democracy only as it was getting ready to go. Unsatisfactory, but something. In Hong Kong up to now, Britain has shied away even from doing that.
Yet Hong Kong needs democracy. It is one of the most advanced and economically sophisticated societies in the world. Its new generation of highly educated, materially secure, young people is not going to accept the privations, physical or political, of their parents.
It is not enough to think that Hong Kong, after 1997, will merely become another relatively emancipated industrial growth point of China, like Shanghai or Guangdong, that will concentrate on money-making and go along with the old men of Beijing.
Hong Kong has been out in the world too long for that. While citizens of Shanghai and Guangdong have never known better than they have today, the people of Hong Kong have breathed the air and values of the Western world.
They may not always measure its worth now, so frantically do they pursue business, but if deprived of it, I doubt they would just lie down. The human spirit does not do that, especially in the era of the greatest expansion of freedom in history.
Hong Kong's largely-appointed legislative council was seriously out of touch with public opinion last month when, worried at upsetting Beijing, it rejected a resolution asking that the 18 seats out of 60) that are directly elected be increased to 30 by 1995.
Britain is committed to reopening negotiations with China on increasing the elected members. The task for Chris Patten is to decide how tough to be. There are going to be persuasive voices, including the Foreign Office in London and some of Hong Kong's most influential businessmen, telling him not to rock the boat.
It is to Prime Minister John Major's credit that he appointed a high-flying politician as governor instead of the usual diplomat. Mr. Patten was not only chairman of the Conservative Party, but just about its strongest liberal. I don't think it is in his temperament to swallow arguments that put money and ''harmony'' before the political ideas of the Enlightenment.
As it happens, Governor Patten arrives at a time that is unexpectedly fluid in China. Most China watchers had not expected the re-emergence of Deng Xiaoping and his forceful and apparently successful pacing of the capitalist revolution in the industrial sector. Mr. Deng will not appreciate it, but a steady hand in Hong Kong can use this to political advantage.
The overriding factor working to Hong Kong's advantage is that Mr. Deng and his hard-line Communist peers (average age 87) will be dead or non-functioning by 1997. If Hong Kong seizes this moment of economic emancipation in China to race for democracy, Mr. Patten can afford to call Beijing's bluff.
Beijing will puff and huff, but won't want to blow Hong Kong down. Mr. Deng certainly does not want to sabotage his own last act by unsettling Hong Kong with a massive political confrontation. He surely knows if the Hong Kong economy falters, his own economic reforms will be doomed.
Mr. Patten, I believe, holds the aces. What is more, there could be a delightful sequel to this game. Come 1997, when the Chinese wheel Hong Kong into the body politic of China, it could be perfect timing:
The old men are dead, the economic reforms have taken off, the Middle Kingdom is ripe for political change. And out of this Asian Trojan Horse step the ready-made forces of Chinese democracy.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.