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Hong Kong's Governor Opens New Legislature : Asia: China says it will disband the first fully elected, all-Chinese 'historic council' in 1997.

October 12, 1995|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — Despite being dubbed "the incredible shrinking governor" this week, Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last colonial leader, is showing that he is not about to step quietly aside before China takes control of the territory in 1997.

On Wednesday, Patten convened Hong Kong's first fully elected and all-Chinese legislature--the product of controversial democratic reforms that infuriated China--calling it a "historic council."

It was in the same chamber two years ago that Patten announced his dramatic electoral proposals, which stretched the definitions of a British-Chinese agreement on Hong Kong's political future.

Aimed at giving the territory a taste of democracy before the 1997 takeover, the proposals allowed more people than ever before to vote in last month's election, which resulted in a legislature dominated by pro-democracy candidates.

The new council's moment in history may be cut short, however.

Accusing Patten of changing the electoral rules without its consent, Beijing has declared that it will disband the legislature when China assumes sovereignty within two years and replace it with a handpicked Parliament. China will unveil the committee charged with creating the shadow legislature by Christmas.

Patten spoke out against the plan Wednesday.

"You should be allowed to do your job for the full term for which you were elected," he told the legislature's 60 members. "Any other course of action would damage Hong Kong and the prospect of a smooth transition of Chinese sovereignty."

Percy Cradock, a British diplomat who helped negotiate the original hand-over agreement, said this week that Patten has brought the current difficulties on himself.

"He's made himself so obnoxious to the Chinese," Cradock said. "You now have the spectacle of the incredible shrinking governor."

Thoughtful, smooth and an accomplished politician, Patten flashes his wit more often than his temper, in this case thanking Cradock for noticing his attempts to lose weight.

But as China prepares to take over, the governor's role is inevitably diminishing, hastened by sniping from all sides: China has demanded his recall, and the Democratic Party, once his strongest supporter, introduced a no-confidence motion in the last legislative session, claiming that he had made too many compromises with Beijing.

But spurred by a sense of history and an avowed belief that Britain has not done enough for its subjects, Patten is working to keep his profile high.

On a recent British radio talk show, he renewed a demand for full British passports for all Hong Kong residents.

The statement prompted renewed fury from Beijing, sparked an outcry from Britons fearful that millions of Chinese would flood their shores and even drew charges from jaded Hong Kongers that he was "playing politics" to revive his flagging popularity.

Though leaders in Beijing and rivals in Britain try to dismiss him as a lame duck, they are still wary of his power to disrupt. On the eve of his Wednesday speech, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Chen Jian warned him to avoid "creating further trouble."

To Beijing's relief, Patten did not drop any bombshells in his annual policy address, though he subtly warned Beijing to keep its hands off the well-running, prosperous and democratic machine Britain will be handing over.

"We must not forget . . . that, as we move closer to 1997, the eyes of the world will focus on Hong Kong," he said.

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