After just five months as Hong Kong's governor, Chris Patten sparked a row with China by pressing for more democracy in the British colony before Beijing takes over in 1997. The Chinese flatly rejected the move and threatened reprisals, including the revocation of the 1984 Sino-British treaty on the future of the colony. In his stately mansion, Patten answered questions from BUSINESS WEEK Editor-in-Chief Stephen B. Shepard, Assistant Managing Editor Robert J. Dowling, and Hong Kong Bureau Chief Joyce Barnathan.
Q The question is why now? Your predecessor had five, six, seven years since the treaty was signed. Nobody pushed for democracy.
A The issue is, what precisely should be the arrangements for the last elections under British sovereignty in 1995? The position of the United Kingdom was that there should be an increase in the number of directly elected seats. The position of China was there shouldn't be . . . . I took the view that we were inevitably going to have an argument, so we were better off having it as far ahead of 1997 as possible.
Q One senses that Hong Kong's business community doesn't understand and appreciate Britain's efforts.
A I think the relationship between the rule of law and a clean administrative system and Hong Kong's success is sometimes insufficiently recognized. I don't think Hong Kong would have as audacious and successful an economic future if that rule of law was corroded.
Q Do you think the Chinese strategy now is to try to make you effectively a lame duck by frightening everyone into voting down your proposals?
A I'm not sure that they want to make me a lame duck. I'm keen on cooperation. I do think that Hong Kong wants a modest increase in its ability to shape its life, its future. It's not part of some great, elaborate plot or threat to the mainland.
Q Some congressmen are urging the Clinton Administration to link China's most-favored-nation trade status with progress on democracy in Hong Kong. Would that devastate Hong Kong economically?
A It would be spectacularly eccentric and perverse to take it out on Hong Kong. I will be lobbying in the States early next year in favor of unconditional MFN. I will be doing that as a matter of principle because I don't believe in politicizing trade.
Q How would you advise the new Clinton Administration on dealing with Beijing?
A All that I would say is that I don't believe disengagement as a policy ever works, except in extreme circumstances.
Q What does work with China?
A I think the expression is constructive engagement.
Q Are you going to back off on your proposals?
A It would be difficult. I am wholly open-minded about other proposals which seem better or more acceptable. However, we will have to make a decision soon.