Former governor Chris Patten could not have timed his latest visit to Hong Kong more perfectly.
It comes at a time when Hong Kong people are getting frustrated about the future and the prospect of another five years under Leung Chun-ying.
They’re worried that Hong Kong will continue to lose its uniqueness and be downgraded to the status of an ordinary Chinese city.
At the same time, a nascent pro-independence movement is beginning to tear society apart.
Patten brought sobriety to the equation, urging people to safeguard Hong Kong’s autonomy but warning them against advocating separatism.
Being Hong Kong’s last colonial governor and having presided over its transition to Chinese sovereignty, Patten understands our complex political situation more than most.
He might have delivered a blow to the separatists but to most Hong Kong people, keeping the political ties with China is a realistic issue and that independence is a fantasy.
Patten was doing his best to help bring the discussion back to a reasonable track, calling for democracy and improved governance.
The slow progress of democracy is a deadweight on the development of Hong Kong, he said.
He pledged to support efforts to strengthen the democracy campaign, citing the “mature and peaceful” 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.
But Patten also warned about a bigger issue in the context of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
This is Paragraph 3, Subsection 1 of the treaty which talks about China’s territorial integrity and national unity.
It would be a “tragedy” if the moral high ground established by young people in 2014 was lost because of the antics of independence advocates, Patten said.
He was obviously referring to the Youngspiration duo who were disqualified from the Legislative Council for insulting China and reading an improper oath during their swearing-in.
Most Hong Kong people disagree with what the pair had done but not with Beijing’s decision to interpret Article 104 of the the Basic Law that effectively barred them from Legco. It came when the issue was still subject to a judicial review by Hong Kong’s High Court.
Beijing’s move had the effect of preempting the High Court, thereby also undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Patten condemned it but Hong Kong officials, as expected, saw it differently.
From Leung Chun-ying on down to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and constitutional affairs chief Raymond Tam, Hong Kong officials echoed Beijing’s decision.
That discouraged many Hong Kong people even more and prompted a group of lawyers to stage a silent protest.
Patten understood that what Beijing had done triggered deep concern about the future but splitting Hong Kong from China is not the answer.
Hong Kong people need a leader like Patten to speak the truth about the realities in Hong Kong and to remind them that independence is a dead end.
Hong Kong enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in the colonial era and during the early years of the 1997 handover. The government set its own policies without interference from Beijing.
Things began to change when the central authorities tried to legislate Article 23 of the Basic Law in 2003 in order to bring in a national security law, triggering mass protests.
Other forms of intervention, from the shelved national education curriculum to the disastrous political reform proposal, only deepened Hong Kong people’s suspicions of Beijing’s political motives.
Patten may no longer be in a position to change anything but his advice should comfort Hong Kong people and strengthen their belief in democracy.
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