Governor in radio clash over reforms

GOVERNOR Mr Chris Patten clashed with a British politician who was once offered his job, during an all-party row on a BBC radio show yesterday.

Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Jenkins said Hongkong's way of life had nothing to do with free elections, and he was ''bewildered'' by some of Mr Patten's comments.

The influential peer, who claims he turned down the Governorship while in a Paris toilet 14 years ago, said he understood why China was angry over the Patten package.

''Doesn't it seem odd to the Chinese that we, having governed for 152 years without democracy . . . should attach more importance to what's happening in the four-year period when they are about to take over,'' he said.

His comments came during heated exchanges on the Any Questions programme early yesterday (Hongkong time), at the end of the first week of Mr Patten's fortnight-long trip to London.

''With four years to go, there's no choice to being short-sighted,'' Lord Jenkins said.

''Why didn't previous governments do this when they had the power to do so?'' But the Governor - whose London visit continues with a Tuesday meeting with Prime Minister Mr John Major - hit back with a rare defence of past failures to bring democracy to Hongkong.

He said Foreign Office officials had told previous governments that Beijing ''would be very cross about it''.

''China always objected to democracy because it would encourage a feeling of independence in Hongkong and cut across Hongkong going back, so it wasn't a case of our dragging our feet,'' he said.

''We have brought colonies, dependent territories, to independence with great skill, giving them democracy, rule of law, and clean and honest government.

''We were not faced with the same problems in Hongkong because we have been preparing the colony for resumption of sovereignty by China.'' And the Governor won the support of a former key political opponent, who said his proposals were not enough, but should be supported nonetheless.

''Chris Patten, go ahead,'' said former Labour shadow foreign secretary Mr Gerald Kaufman.

''If China is going to reject the modest - too modest - proposals, let the Chinese show the world they are breaking their word.

''They want capitalist investors. Let them show the capitalist investors how they keep their word.'' Mr Kaufman sharply attacked the failure to introduce democracy earlier, saying it had been ''pusillanimous and short-sighted, but that's no reason for going on being so''.

Mr Patten also received some support from Lord Jenkins, who said he was ''behaving with great courage and great flair'', adding he approved of democracy and ''standing up to China''.

He said he didn't take the Governorship because he thought Hongkong didn't need a politician when he was offered the post.

Lord Jenkins claims in his memoirs the offer was made by then prime minister Lord Callaghan in a Paris toilet on Tuesday, March 13, 1979, and that he responded: ''Certainly not Jim. I have never heard a more preposterous suggestion.'' Mr Patten also told his radio audience he was surprised he was not criticised more often over the modesty of his political package.

''It's important that before 1997 we stand up for Hongkong's way of life,'' he said.

''We have to do everything we can to safeguard the future of these very remarkable people up to 1997 , and I think the best way is clean, straightforward elections in 1995.''