My Take

Democracy doesn’t have to mean independence

The last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has it right: don’t let political opportunists or misguided youth steer us in the wrong direction

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 1:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 1:56am

You can ignore the Beijing stooges. But at least try to listen to Chris Patten. The last governor of Hong Kong – sometimes referred to as “a sinner for a thousand years” by former senior mainland officials – was defending Hong Kong’s fight for democracy against the futile call for independence.

It makes a lot of sense. I hope young people will listen and change course from a political dead end, but somehow I doubt it. They were still in diapers when Patten had his last post in Hong Kong and so probably wouldn’t know or care anything about him. But like many older people here, I have always had a soft spot for “Fat Pang”.

But before I start, let me take this opportunity to correct the common mistranslation of that Patten insult, hurled at him by Lu Ping, former head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. It’s literally not “a thousand years”, but “a thousand epochs”, which is used as an idiom in Chinese to mean “forever” or “eternal”.

In other words, it’s actually “Patten, the eternal sinner”. It’s kind of like another Chinese idiom, “a hundred names”. It doesn’t mean “100 surnames”, but “the public”, “the people” or “the population”.

Ignore people’s aspirations at your peril, Hong Kong’s last governor warns

I don’t know how this “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” kind of illiterate translation came into fashion: it involves outright – or even wilful – ignorance of proper Chinese idioms. But it offers ample opportunities for foreigners to sneer at Chinese as an unsophisticated, literal language.

Sorry for the digression. As I was saying, Patten was talking sense in his speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club. He has been a fierce critic of China – you only need to read his letters and opinion pieces in the Financial Times. But his loyalty always lies with Hong Kong people.

The struggle for full democracy will always be a long shot given the authoritarianism of the central government, even though the Basic Law guarantees it.

A more restricted version such as that rejected by the pan-democrats last year or something similar may be the best there is in the near future. Still, full democracy has constitutional, institutional and popular support in Hong Kong.

On the other hand, independence has no such support: it’s only a misguided notion cultivated by some young people and political opportunists.