British governor's plans fire debate


December 20, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

HONG KONG -- A big, black Daimler with a Union Jack fluttering above its imposing hood rolls up to a cluster of rickety wooden tenements, home to 3,000 Chinese awaiting better public housing. Chris Patten emerges from the limousine's back seat, a wide smile spread across his red face.

Apparently the last British governor of this colony, Mr. Patten is immersed in a firestorm of his own making -- a highly personal test of wills with China. On a warm afternoon last week, he is still taking time for a "walkabout," one of his regular visits to the varied districts of this small but dynamic slice of China stolen by Britain about 150 years ago.

Mr. Patten loves to press the flesh. He pats little children on their heads and wishes all a merry Christmas. He visits with families, even spins through the community's public toilets, before ending up at a temple dedicated to Wong Tai Sin, a benevolent Taoist god.

His populist touch is new for Hong Kong, and it has made Mr. Patten widely popular. But his popularity -- and even Taoist benevolence -- might not extricate him from the corner in which he has intentionally and, indeed, cleverly placed himself.

The arguments between Britain and China and within Hong Kong over Mr. Patten's proposals are complex. In line with the inglorious history of this entrepot, they are infected by mistrust, national pride and arrogance.

Two months ago, in his first speech to Hong Kong's largely appointed legislature, Mr. Patten offered to increase the degree of democracy here. He calls his plans "rather modest," but they now threaten to derail the "through train," the Sino-British agreement on a seamless transition of sovereignty when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control July 1, 1997.

Mr. Patten wants to widen the voting base in the colony's 1995 elections, its last before China takes over. And he wants 39 of the legislature's 60 seats filled by various means that might be considered popular elections -- up from just 18 directly elected seats now.

His proposals, which follow a decade of British appeasement of China by stifling moves for more democracy, have provoked vehement reactions from Beijing.

China views his ideas as an attempt to reopen issues long settled and to control this city after 1997. It won't talk about his proposals. It won't entertain alternatives. It wants them withdrawn, and over the past few weeks it has shown it will threaten what matters most here -- the colony's economic stability -- if it doesn't get its way.

Mr. Patten's proposals also have brought to the fore the highly charged quest from within the colony to force China to give it a high degree of autonomy within the concept of "one country, two systems," as China vowed in 1984 when Britain assented to leaving Hong Kong.

In 4 1/2 years, 6 million people here -- half of them refugees from China -- will be delivered to the control of the Chinese Communist Party without having had much say about the terms of the deal.

Hong Kong's blossoming democratic movement still wants that say, and its leaders figure they stand a better chance of some gains while under British rule than under China.

"This is Hong Kong's last chance," says Christine Loh, a Patten appointee to the colony's legislature. "The genie's out of the bottle now, and it can't be put back just because China is making people uncomfortable. Yes, China is barking loudly and people are getting afraid, but the issues won't go away."

Unholy alliance

James Tien is a very rich man. His father fled China four decades ago and built a textile and property empire here, which Mr. Tien now runs. At 45, he has a U.S. education, a British passport and no qualms about shifting his assets elsewhere.

Mr. Tien and many of Hong Kong's heavyweight capitalists also are among Beijing's best friends in the colony. They are dead-set against Mr. Patten's proposals. Some call this Hong Kong's "unholy alliance." It is based on one concern: making money.

The irony is not lost on Mr. Tien. "Who should be most afraid of the Communists but me?" he asks. "I've got hundreds of millions of [Hong Kong] dollars of assets that could be confiscated by them."

But Mr. Tien is more worried by Hong Kong's democrats. He admits that most of the city wants more democracy. But for him that means politicians making promises to get elected by the masses, who then are rewarded with welfare benefits paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy.

"Democracy sounds great," he says. "But we'll end up with a high-tax welfare state here, and then all of us with money will leave, and then Hong Kong will go under."

Over the next two months, while Hong Kong waits for Mr. Patten's proposals to go before its legislature, Mr. Tien's argument will be just part of China's arsenal as it ratchets up the pressure here.

Last month, China threatened to tear up in 1997 any Hong Kong government contracts signed without its approval before then and to dissolve its legislature if elected under Mr. Patten's scheme.

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