Chris Patten warns Hong Kong pro-independence antics ‘dilute support’ for democracy
The city’s last governor pours scorn on oath-taking protest by localist duo and fears ‘moral high ground’ of Occupy movement could be lost
Hong Kong’s last governor has torn into pro-independence activists, saying it would be a tragedy if the “moral high ground” achieved by student leaders in the 2014 Occupy protests was lost because of pro-independence antics.
Chris Patten, who is in the city for a short visit, accused such activists of “diluting support” for democracy in Hong Kong.
However, he also lamented the “slow progress” of democracy since the 1997 handover and suggested the central government should have exercised restraint when considering an interpretation of the Basic Law.
“I still have great admiration for those who campaign for democracy, but not for those whose campaign dilutes support for democracy and makes a mockery of a serious political argument,” he said.
He was speaking amid the ongoing oath-taking saga in the city. On October 12 localist duo Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching pledged allegiance to a “Hong Kong nation” and insulted China at a swearing-in ceremony at the Legislative Council.
The fracas prompted China’s top legislative body to step in and interpret an article of the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – ruling on November 7 that lawmakers who declined to take their oaths “sincerely” would face disqualification.
A week after Beijing’s intervention, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled that the pair must vacate their seats.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Friday, Patten said taking an oath was a serious matter and “not something of a lark”.
“In Britain, if you don’t take an oath, you cannot even join a club,” he added.
“It would be dishonest, dishonourable and reckless of somebody like me, to pretend that the case for democracy should be mixed up with an argument about the independence of Hong Kong – something which is not going to happen, something which dilutes support for democracy, and something which has led to all sorts of antics which should not take place in a mature society aiming to be a full democracy.”
Patten was branded a “sinner for 1,000 years” in 1992 by top Beijing official Lu Ping for disrupting the handover by changing the election system for the Legislative Council in breach of the Basic Law.
In a reference to the Occupy protests, Patten said: “Two years ago, many brave young people in Hong Kong established moral high ground about democracy in governance, and I think it would be a tragedy if that high ground was lost because of a few antics.”
Patten also said it would be a “mistake to confuse the way people know the relationship” between their citizenship, freedoms and prosperity “with headline-grabbing remarks about independence”.
Asked what he had to say to young people who supported independence, he replied: “ I would far prefer it if Chinese officials were having to discuss an answerable case for greater democracy in Hong Kong, rather than talking about the ... very unwise case of arguing for independence.”
On Beijing’s latest interpretation of the Basic Law, he noted that since the issue in question was already being pursued in the local court, “it would have been more sensible to allow the Hong Kong court to sort it out”.
Leung disagreed with Patten’s arguments. He argued that the lack of democratic reform in the last two years “proved that ‘moral high ground’ can yield nothing when you are negotiating with” Beijing.
Patten was also asked to comment on what would be his top priority if he were the city’s chief executive now.
“I would try ... to establish a dialogue with people on the other side of the argument, as it’s corrosive of government when disagreement turns into quarrels,” he said, adding that a bad relationship between the executive branch and the legislature could undermine the city’s reputation.
Patten refused to comment on whether Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had done a good job, or whether Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah – Leung’s potential challenger and formerly Patten’s private secretary – would do better.
But Patten gave his views on the Sino-US relationship after Donald Trump was elected US president. He hoped Trump and President Xi Jinping could have a constructive dialogue and “avoid a trade war” between the two countries.