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Interview: ‘They’ve broken their word, as I’m afraid they do regularly’

Veteran British politician Chris Patten served as the last governor of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997, overseeing the final years of British rule over the colony and helping arrange for its transfer to China in 1997.  He was vilified by the Chinese Communist Party for introducing democratic reforms in the city, many of which have been rolled back by Beijing in recent years in a crackdown in response to protests demanding more freedoms. Patten, 78, who holds the title Baron Patten of Barnes and serves as chancellor of the University of Oxford, spoke the Amelia Loi of RFA Cantonese about the changes in Hong Kong as the July 1 25th anniversary of the handover approaches.

RFA: How do you assess the changes in Hong Kong in the 25 years since the handover?

Patten: Hong Kong when we left was like a Rolls Royce. The economy was doing very well. It was stable and the system of government worked very well. The civil service was terrific. All you really needed to do as the Chinese Communist regime was to turn on the ignition and off it would pop.

Hong Kong was an exceptionally successful community ––the eighth largest trading community in the world and we never had the sort of demonstrations which have affected Hong Kong in the last few years. I had very much hoped it would continue as long as possible and the Chinese had promised that it would continue for 50 years. They’ve broken their word, as I’m afraid they do regularly. They break their word. They break international treaties whenever it suits them. And I think that’s happening again this time.

RFA: What do you say to those who say Britain should not have trusted China and returned Hong Kong?

Patten: We had no choice but to hand Hong Kong over because all the New Territories where there seven large cities were held on a 99-year lease.  And we would have been in breach of international law if we’d tried to hold onto them.  So we had no choice and it’s sad but true. We could have held onto the part of Hong Kong which was held under a grant but it would have been impossible to hold onto the island. What would you have done for water? You would have to be bringing in water in container ships I suppose, but it would have been absolutely impossible and unreasonable. I don’t think we had any alternative but to do that.

RFA: What do think of voices calling for Hong Kong independence?

Patten: I have never been an advocate of independence of Hong Kong because I was part of a diplomatic effort to ensure Hong Kong could return to China, retaining its way of life for 50 years after 1997. The fact that the independence movement has grown in Hong Kong is an indication of how badly China has behaved and how little people actually trust China today. It’s an extraordinary thing that so few people are actually proud of Hong Kong being part of China now. There’s a great sense of Hong Kong citizenship, and there’s a great sense that people are Hong Kongers but only a small number think of themselves as Chinese.

RFA: Would a different leadership of the Chinese Communist Party make a difference for Hong Kong?

Patten: It would help Hong Kong and China if the leadership in China…was a little more like that of Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao. What of course Deng Xiaoping had hoped for is that they wouldn’t again have a return to sort of Maoism, which is what’s happened, and wouldn’t again have a return to personality cults, which is again what’s happened. I think that’s all particularly sad, but I am not sure if there is anything we can do at the moment.