Cool greeting awaits Hong Kong's governor in China

October 20, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- A Beijing-backed newspaper in Hong Kong has accused him of dressing up as "the god of democracy," and that is a telling reflection of the frosty reception the colony's new British governor likely will receive on his first visit here today.

Democracy's the problem. Chris Patten, Hong Kong's 28th and probably last British governor before it reverts to Chinese rule in 1997, wants the colony to have more self-rule. China is infuriated by the idea.

The 48-year-old Mr. Patten was expected to shake up the staid pattern set by the long line of reserved diplomats who preceded him.

Having crafted the British Conservative Party's surprising election win last spring, he blew into the colony 15 weeks ago with the reputation of being a politician's politician.

Since then, he has disappointed no one, except the rulers of China whom he increasingly defies.

Mr. Patten has come on like an American big-city mayor running for re-election, carrying out a whirlwind campaign to seduce the hearts and minds of Hong Kong's 6 million residents.

In the process, he has challenged directly Beijing's bid for growing power over the colony's affairs before its takeover.

From his inauguration day -- when he refused to wear a plumed helmet that has been the mark of the governorship since the 19th century -- he has been out in Hong Kong's streets, shaking hands, kissing babies and fielding questions. The other day, he even briefly took over a fishmonger's stall.

Hong Kong is an increasingly wealthy community caught between rising middle class aspirations for more democracy and the need to reach an accommodation with Chinese rule in less than five years.

It has responded in unprecedented fashion to Mr. Patten's revolutionary populism. Large crowds follow him on his walkabouts in the colony. Tickets for his question-and-answer sessions immediately sell out. Polls in the colony show he has gained trust and backing.

But Beijing has not been pleased at all by Mr. Patten's act. Chinese officials are expected to do their best to put him in his place.

At the heart of the Sino-British wrangle over Hong Kong is how much democracy will exist there in 1997, when Beijing takes it over under a formula for relative autonomy called "one country, two systems."

The answer was supposed to have been spelled out in a 1984 Sino-British declaration that led to agreement on a mini-constitution for the colony known as the Basic Law.

But Chinese officials have proven adept at interpreting the Basic Law in ways that would freeze any moves toward greater democracy within the colony before 1997.

Instead of kowtowing to Chinese intransigence as his predecessors often were accused of doing, Mr. Patten has staked out a position at the forefront of a gathering momentum within Hong Kong for more self-rule.

In this war of words, Mr. Patten threw down the gauntlet Oct. 7 with his first major policy address to Hong Kong's legislature.

He pitched a complicated, but bold scheme under which about two-thirds of the 60-member legislature would be directly or indirectly elected in Hong Kong's last colonial election in 1995 and the base of eligible voters would be expanded dramatically.

Right now, only 18 legislators are directly elected, with a liberal, pro-democracy party having taken 12 of these seats in Hong Kong's first direct elections in 1991.

The Basic Law says no more than 20 seats can be directly elected by 1997. Mr. Patten technically honored that limit, but exploited apparent loopholes in the Basic Law to expand the degree of democracy in the filling of another 19 seats.

"My goal is this: to safeguard Hong Kong's way of life," Mr. Patten declared. "We must make possible the widest democratic participation for the people of Hong Kong in the running of their own affairs."

Chinese officials, who fully intend to run Hong Kong themselves, exploded. They called his plans "irresponsible" and labeled him a "failed politician," a personal reference to his loss of his British parliament seat in last spring's election.

They also darkly hinted that they now could not be held responsible if chaos ensued in Hong Kong after 1997, the last thing that the colony's ever-jittery citizenry wants to hear.

But Mr. Patten has continued to press his case, insisting he is adhering to Basic Law and challenging mainland officials to stop hurling abuse long enough to counter with their own proposals.

In the short term, the first victim of this row could be British plans for a massive new airport for the colony, a facility essential to Hong Kong's hopes of remaining an international business hub.

Building the airport is stalled because China has refused to back it, citing fears that the $21 billion project will drain Hong Kong's financial reserves by 1997. Without China's assurance it will repay the project's loans after 1997, financing has been viewed as unobtainable.

Essentially enjoying veto power over such a badly needed project in the colony has given China since last year much-craved leverage in Hong Kong's political affairs.

Chinese officials are expert at this sort of behind-the-scenes diplomatic game. But Mr. Patten has vexed them further by not honoring the game's unspoken rules -- by instead playing his cards publicly and vowing to build the airport without Chinese cooperation if necessary.

"[The airport] deserves to be built. It will be built. Everyone knows that," he said, adding a jab at China's political motives: "I remain convinced that if we discussed the airport on its merits, then our very able negotiators could sort things out in a morning, perhaps with a break for coffee."

Last week, the first set of Sino-British talks on the airport following these comments broke off after three hours with no agreement and some harsh exchanges. And there are likely to be very few, if any, coffee breaks for Mr. Patten in Beijing this week.

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