Patten's mind strays

FOR the fifth time in 10 months, Chris Patten has interrupted his Hong Kong schedule for a visit to London. It may seem churlish to begrudge him his regular tete a tete with the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary; but does it really serve the interests of the territory to have a Governor whose attention appears more keenly focused on maintaining his personal contacts and profile in Britain than on putting everything he has into running the administration here? Is there nothing for Mr Patten to do in Hong Kong? If, for example, he took the Legislative Council as seriously as he once claimed he did, would he not have been on hand for today's vote on the Motion of Thanks for his annual policy address? It is no longer quite the formality it was under previous Governors. Although its defeat is unlikely, some legislators have threatened to vote against it. A show of concern for Legco opinion might have been politically wise - and courteous.

Mr Patten has said he wants to take a lower profile and be more like a mayor than a governor. Unfortunately there is a perception that he no longer feels obliged to take a mayor's interest in the day-to-day running of Hong Kong and has decided instead to sit back and twiddle his thumbs for the final 979 days of British rule.

Before he left last night Mr Patten said the visit would allow him to keep in touch with ministers and others concerned with Hong Kong. It would also let him address key businessmen at the annual dinner of the Trade Development Council. Those are worthwhile aims. None, however, would justify delaying important business in Hong Kong if the Governor perceived any on his agenda. These days, keeping in touch with overseas colleagues is easily achieved by telephone and fax.

If face-to-face contact is felt to be necessary, video-conferencing can be arranged. The only justification for another trip to London just now would be a top-level policy review in an attempt to address the concerns expressed by Hong Kong people in the South China Morning Post poll earlier this week. Mr Patten scored just 3.7 out of 10 for his handling of Sino-British relations.

With China determined to contradict his every public statement, Mr Patten's desire to avoid the spotlight is understandable. But Hong Kong deserves a governor whose mind is fully on the territory.