The still, calm voice of change

Fanny Wong

CHRIS Patten is the most controversial Governor in contemporary Hongkong history .

In the first 360 days of his governorship, a period characterised by constant political bickering between China and Britain, Hongkong people have felt they were riding on a tiger's back, never knowing when they would be bitten.

Unlike his predecessor, Lord Wilson, Mr Patten is unconventional, unpredictable and in many Hongkong politicians' eyes, impossible to see through.

The arrival of the Pattens on the Lady Maurine on July 9, 1992, ushered in a new era and once the two-month honeymoon period of Mr Patten's governorship was over, he started to make waves.

While the old captain Lord Wilson had tried his best to stay close to shore, Mr Patten was like a great adventurer leading Hongkong into uncharted waters.

There was, of course, a reason for the change. It was suggested that by sending Mr Patten to Hongkong, Britain was determined to wash away its servile image, one which had grown stronger during the Wilson era.

In event after event, prior to the Patten regime, all Britain appeared to do was succumb to bullying from Beijing. Concessions in 1988 which stalled greater democracy for Hongkong and the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the new airport project, which was tantamount to giving up the financial autonomy for Hongkong promised in the Joint Declaration, pointed to a weak Britain in the world arena.

The warning from liberal leader Martin Lee Chu-ming before Mr Patten took over from Lord Wilson has perhaps remained in the mind of the former Conservative Party chairman: ''Once you kowtow, you are forever on your knee''.

Patten's offensive began on October 7 when he delivered his maiden policy speech outlining the manifesto for his five-year tenure in Hongkong.

The bold democratisation plan contained in the address came as a bombshell to China as it told the world that Hongkong, under Patten's leadership, would be capable of standing up to Zhongnanhai.

China saw the plan as, in effect, introducing direct elections, for all 60 seats in the legislature. The political blueprint put Beijing on the attack immediately.

The Chinese had been given no clue of what the constitutional package contained and there had been no consultation with Beijing leaders before it was passed on to Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen by his British counterpart Douglas Hurd in late September.

No wonder China, familiar with the accommodating approach of Foreign Office mandarins which allowed for endless consultations before making any decisions on transitional matters, was angry and shocked.

But Mr Patten saw no problem in not consulting China before he finalised his blueprint. What's more he actively sold his reform plan to a wider audience: Hongkong and the international community.

His local and overseas roadshows campaigning for his constitutional package, - particularly his meeting with US President Bill Clinton, - further agitated China.

Noting the Chinese attempt to try and exchange an early take-off on Chek Lap Kok airport projects for a more conservative political model, Mr Patten made some controversial statements, such as suggesting Hongkong might go it alone on the airport plan only a day after his policy address was delivered.

As a skilful politician, Mr Patten did not forget to give a little something to the community in order to win over Hongkong people's hearts.

He promised massive spending on welfare, education and the environment and they were later translated into action in the Budget.

His generosity was rewarded when his popularity shot up to 65.5 points immediately after his policy speech.

Liberal politicians also felt a change in the air towards a pro-democracy stance and turned to Mr Patten for leadership.

Despite the barrage of criticism China levelled against Mr Patten after the announcement of the reform plan, Chinese officials still hoped that he would change his mind.

A limited degree of patience and tolerance was shown towards him, but the Governor remained ''unrepentant'' during his maiden visit to China in late October.

Chinese officials then launched a counter-offensive which included the warning that the lack of convergence on the political front would lead to non-convergence on other facets of life in Hongkong, before and after 1997.

Threats that China might set up its own organisation, dubbed a second stove, to deal with transitional matters were made.

The announcement that China would not necessarily endorse contracts and franchises straddling 1997 as approved by the British Hongkong administration shocked the stock market and the Hang Seng Index nosedived to below 5,000 points.

Hongkong people, famous for their pragmatism, simply do not want direct confrontation with Beijing. The hostile relationship across the border therefore sent Mr Patten's popularity down to a record low of 53 points in mid-December.

By then, Mr Patten must have learnt that dealing with the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China was a different story from handling the British Opposition.

Months of bickering with China have seen Mr Patten moderating his approach. He is more restrained and less provocative today than last autumn.

Thus a quieter approach was instituted earlier this year, with secret meetings held in Beijing to negotiate a date for the resumption of talks on the constitutional package.

Unlike the high-profile approach he adopted during the early days of his policy address, Mr Patten nowadays is more comfortable with the old formula of behind-closed-doors consultations with Beijing on both the electoral front and the airport financing plan.

Mr Patten pledged in his inaugural speech to build up trust with China but during the last year, Hongkong people have seen the two sides drift further apart.

It is too early to say whether his latest change of approach will help mend the fence.

How Mr Patten is to steer Hongkong through the choppy waters into 1997 is still unclear. But one definite outcome of the past 12 months is that Mr Patten's crusade for democracy has substantially boosted his international image.

Never has a Hongkong governor gained such a high profile in the world arena.