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Hong Kong's last British governor winds down years of bad fung shui and ponders the future of democracy in the crown colony.

Published April 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

HONG KONG -- from the ramparts of Hong Kong's grand old Government House, Chris Patten has been firing fusillades for the past five years at the incoming horde of Chinese communists who are set to take over the colony on July 1.

No wonder that Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing's appointee to head Hong Kong after Britain leaves on June 30, decided that the 1850s white-washed mansion had bad fung shui -- bad energy brought on by erecting buildings without regard to nature's holistic forces. Or, in Patten's case, perhaps, from fighting a rear-guard action to plant the seeds of democracy in Britain's last Asian outpost.

Two years ago, Patten organized the first democratic elections Hong Kong had ever seen, bringing in a Legislative Council filled with smart, forthright democrats determined to see free speech and open elections endure after China took over. Infuriated Beijing officials screamed betrayal and accused Patten of breaking the Basic Law (or "Basic Flaw," as some Hong Kongers call it), the document signed by the U.K. and China outlining the transition.

Patten, an up-and-coming Conservative Party official before Prime Minister John Major dispatched him to Hong Kong, has been equally vituperative about the Chinese. Having visited Beijing in 1989 during the student occupation of Tiananmen Square, Patten was determined to see Britain take down its flag with some democratic dignity. If Beijing chose to dismantle that later, at least he'd have done his best.

Patten's defiance found little echo in Whitehall, where concern with the business opportunities in a bustling China appear to outweigh democratic niceties, but he gained immense street credibility among the locals. According to one recent poll, more Chinese in Guangdong province, just across the border, recognized Chris Patten's name than their own provincial leader's.

For all that, Patten's battle may be in vain. Last week, Tung Chee-hwa announced a radical rollback of civil liberties -- including restrictions on freedom to protest and rights of association -- once Beijing takes over.

Salon spoke with Gov. Patten at Government House about the future of Hong Kong after he leaves.

Can democracy survive in Hong Kong?

I don't think that the democratic aspirations of its people can be snuffed out, even if its institutions are substantially changed in the short term. At the moment the Chinese find it difficult to trust Hong Kong. Obviously, some of them are worried about the virus of freedom. I think they should be much more relaxed about letting people in Hong Kong get on with their lives.

Despite their recent actions, do you think the Chinese will let them continue their own way?

China has promised that she'll do that. Many countries, including the United States, will be watching the way China handles Hong Kong as a test of the way she behaves on the international stage in the next few years.

And if China breaks that promise?

Then people in the region will become much more concerned about whether they can trust China, especially as it becomes economically and militarily more powerful. What happens here will tell us a great deal about what sort of country China will become in the next 25 years.

The Chinese have said it is you who have broken a promise, by contravening the Basic Law.

If people abuse you, it usually means they don't have any good arguments. Their assertion that what we did (by having an election for a Legislative Council) is in any way a breach of previous undertakings or of Hong Kong's future is complete baloney. We've challenged the Chinese to make a joint submission with us to the International Court of Justice. Naturally they've declined to take up the offer.

Other critics have said that you and the British attempted to bring democracy to Hong Kong very late in the game.

That's a tired old argument. Hong Kong is different from Britain's other colonies. Everywhere else, we left behind an independent country with all the institutions that go with an independent country. When we talked about doing in Hong Kong what we did in India and Malaysia (establishing an electoral process before leaving), the Chinese objected, saying if you do that you'll give people in Hong Kong the impression that their destiny is the same as other newly independent countries -- but Hong Kong is not going to be independent, it's returning to China.

What's next for you?

I'm going to France, where I have a house, to spend six or seven months writing a book on Asia and about the relationship between economic growth and political pluralism. I'll look at the reasons for Asia's economic success and whether or not it'll continue at the same pace. I'll consider how the rest of the world should treat China, issues that are increasingly coming to the top of the agenda in the world.

You have been in such a high-profile position for the past five years. Have you thought about your own political future?

I've thought about it, but I simply don't know. I think after this I need a bit of time in the decompression chamber. I need to read, garden, walk, get my thoughts in order. We'll see what the world has to offer after that.

Hong Kong has many streets and places named after previous governors. What do you want named after you?

I think there is going to be -- for a short time anyway -- gales of political correctness sweeping through Hong Kong, which will discourage anyone naming anything after me. Actually, I'd like to be remembered as someone who didn't need a street named after him.

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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