FROM dictator to hero in two days. Rarely has Governor Chris Patten enjoyed greater backing from the Hong Kong press and public than in the wake of Beijing's broadsides against his support for higher welfare spending. If nothing else, this unusual show of support may convince China of the self-defeating nature of such personal abuse. The Secretary for the Treasury, Kwong Ki-chi, has won widespread admiration in the community for the way in which he rebuked mainland official Chen Zuo'er for labelling Mr Patten 'a big dictator'. Many would have found it easier to keep quiet in such a situation: preferring not to defend a soon-to-be ex-boss at the risk of offending their future masters. So Mr Kwong is to be congratulated on speaking out. In doing so, he has reassured the public that there are at least some civil servants who do not always put their own interests first - and it is to be hoped that he will not have damaged his career as a result. A similar message is likely to have been conveyed in private by Hong Kong officials at yesterday's first informal get-together with their mainland counterparts. Beijing has to understand that personal abuse is an obstacle to the closer co-operation both sides claim to want. Many have suffered such attacks in the past, often with unfortunate consequences. The constant sniping against the Secretary for Civil Service, Michael Sze Cho-cheung, was almost certainly a factor in his decision to take early retirement next year. As 1997 draws nearer, such abuse will be increasingly demoralising for those staying on. Nor is it acceptable for Beijing to concentrate its fire on Mr Patten, on the grounds that he will be leaving. To accuse the Governor of being a dictator is to insult every one of Hong Kong's 180,000 civil servants by implying they are all his lackeys. To suggest that the relatively junior Mr Chen was acting beyond his brief is to ignore the climate of hostility Beijing has whipped up, which makes mainland cadres believe such insults are acceptable. In a modern and civilised society, it should be possible for the differences which exist over the transition to be discussed in a responsible and adult manner rather than by resorting to childish abuse. The pro-democracy protesters who burnt a small picture of Deng Xiaoping outside the Happy Valley headquarters of Xinhua (the New China News Agency) yesterday were just as wrong as Mr Chen in focusing on personalities rather than issues. Those who ignore that principle only discredit the cause they espouse.