Gov. Chris Patten swept into the sleepy village of Lam Tsuen, stepped from his black limousine and set to work.
First were quick words with local leaders, a ring of the bell in a picturesque Buddhist temple, greetings to schoolgirls and autographs on Ping-Pong paddles. Then came chitchat with the folks.
"I'm 75," said one lady.
"Seventy-five!" exclaimed the governor. "You don't look that old." A man said he was 86. "Fourteen to go!" Patten shot back. Then over to the playground, into a home, back to the limousine and, as suddenly as he had descended, the governor was gone.
"Officials in Beijing don't like him," noted Chan Lai-ching, the elderly woman. "But Hong Kong people like the governor."
That assessment, borne out by opinion polls, is somewhat surprising given the nature of Patten's job. His task--assuming he lasts long enough politically--is to supervise the 1997 transfer of this freewheeling colony's 5.8 million people to Chinese Communist rule.
When Patten, 48, former chairman of Britain's Conservative Party, agreed earlier this year to accept this post, a British newspaper called it "the poison chalice." If handled badly, the job could mean presiding over the tragic decline of one of the world's most dynamic cities--not to mention the end of Patten's own political ambitions.
Just five months into his job, Patten now is locked in a bitter dispute with Beijing over democratic reforms that he proposes to implement prior to Britain's final retreat. China, its leaders fuming, has started making statements calculated to sow terror in the hearts of the colony's business leaders and stock market investors.
Threats by Beijing that the post-1997 government will not honor contracts signed by the colonial government, unless they are approved by China, knocked 16.8% off the stock market's blue-chip Hang Seng index in four days of trading from Nov. 30 through Dec. 3. Since then, the market has been basically stable and has recovered much of the loss.
As the two sides face off, far more than stock prices is at stake. The overall outlook for general prosperity and personal freedoms in Hong Kong may hang on how well Patten plays his cards.
Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese sovereignty is mandated by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, under which Britain agreed to give up the colony on July 1, 1997, in return for a Chinese pledge to preserve Hong Kong's capitalist system and civil liberties for at least 50 years.
Since his arrival in July, Patten, a close friend of British Prime Minister John Major, has broadened his power base by abandoning Hong Kong's most pompous colonial traditions, getting out to meet citizens and aligning himself with pro-democracy efforts.
There was some initial grumbling here about being ruled by a governor who got his post after losing reelection to the British Parliament, but it quickly faded. In recent weeks, however, new dissatisfaction has risen among those who believe that Patten has underestimated Beijing's determination to defeat his proposals at any cost.
"My goal is simply this: to safeguard Hong Kong's way of life," Patten declared in October in his first major policy speech, which touched off the confrontation with Beijing.
Exploiting gray areas in the Chinese-authored Basic Law, Hong Kong's post-1997 mini-constitution, Patten proposed a set of democratic reforms that would give local voters a much more powerful voice in Hong Kong's legislature than China's rulers intend to tolerate. The fate of the proposals, if Patten himself does not back down, will be decided by Hong Kong's Legislative Council early next year.
Under the current system, most council members are chosen from the colony's elite by methods that would be open to post-1997 manipulation by Beijing. Patten's hope is that more democratic procedures for the 1995 legislative elections could establish new precedents.
The lightning bolts from Beijing came with swift fury, even though Patten's proposals did not challenge the post-1997 method of choosing Hong Kong's chief executive. That will be done through a complicated process subject to pressure and ultimate control by Beijing.
"We do not wish to see confrontation because it is detrimental to Hong Kong," Lu Ping, the Chinese government's chief spokesman on the colony, proclaimed in response to Patten's October move. "But if the other side is determined to have confrontation, we cannot but have the honor of keeping it company."
Beijing-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong unleashed a flurry of abuse against the governor.
A commentary in Wen Wei Po, for example, accused Patten of dressing himself up as a "god of democracy" and ridiculed him for having lost his parliamentary seat: "Is it because you are an unqualified politician who failed to live up to your responsibility and failed to reflect public opinion? Or is it that the voters were so blind they could not even elect the one with real ability?"
Patten sometimes lashes back with a touch of sarcasm of his own.
In a September speech, he complained about Beijing's obstructionism on financing proposals for a badly needed $14.5-billion airport project. As a practical matter, Beijing's approval is needed to complete the project because repayment of some loans will be scheduled for after 1997.
"I don't think that it's possible indefinitely to spend one's weekends working out different sorts of proposals in the hope that, somewhere along the line, one will hit the jackpot," he said. Dismissing Chinese charges that airport construction may deplete the colony's reserves, Patten said in the same speech that the post-reversion government "will receive the biggest dowry since Cleopatra."
The Beijing-controlled Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao hit back immediately, calling Patten's comments "unreasonable, abominable and childish."
Chinese Premier Li Peng, touching on the historical sense of grievance that helps poison the dispute, also weighed in. "The British Empire," Li declared in remarks quoted by Ta Kung Pao, "has taken far more wealth out of Hong Kong during its century-plus rule since 1840 than what it is leaving behind in its 'dowry' in 1997."
Beijing's rage stems not only from Patten's proposals but also from his blunt talk. Previous governors typically were China-expert diplomats who showed understanding and even sympathy for Beijing's point of view.
"The Chinese have always bullied the British," said Emily Lau, a legislator who is one of the colony's most prominent pro-democracy advocates. "Suddenly, when Chris Patten came along and wanted to act a bit differently, they were flabbergasted. And of course, what the Chinese would like to take over is a system that politically is completely under their control. So any minor changes that will affect that scheme of things--meaning certain things may not be completely under their control--they resent. They are deeply upset with it."
Mutual suspicion and distrust date back to the 1840-42 Opium War, during which Britain seized Hong Kong and forced China to abandon efforts to suppress the opium trade. From Beijing's point of view, rule by an appointed governor, unfettered by a democratically elected legislature, was fine with London as long as it was in control.
Beijing now fears that democratic reforms will make Hong Kong more difficult to govern after 1997 and also might ignite similar demands in the economically booming provinces of southern China.
Many Hong Kong Chinese, including people on both sides of the democracy debate, see some hypocrisy in Britain's last-minute moves to grant the colony's people a degree of democratic self-rule.
But under British rule, civil liberties were protected because the ruling power itself had a free and open society. Now, with sovereign power soon to pass to a repressive one-party dictatorship that keeps its grip through police-state controls, that guarantee will be lost. Supporters of Patten's proposals believe that no time can be lost in building at least some modest bulwarks against abusive behavior by the post-1997 regime.
"If there is no democracy in Hong Kong, how do you expect the rule of law to continue?" asked Martin Lee, a legislator and lawyer who is the leader of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. "How do you expect human rights to be preserved? Without democracy, in 1997 what will Hong Kong be like? You can expect what is happening in China to come to Hong Kong. You can expect corruption to come to our community again.
"I think if we treasure human rights, which everybody cherishes in Hong Kong, rich or poor, then there is only one way forward--and that is to build into the system as much democracy as possible."
Lau expressed regret that Patten is pushing only for an expansion of democratic procedures for electing the Legislative Council, rather than pursuing "full-scale Western-style democracy."
"But having said that, of course, the fact that I'm deeply disappointed with his proposals does not mean that I'll go ahead and reject them," she added. "I think if you're very hungry, people want to eat two bowls of rice. If people give you a spoonful, you either eat it or you throw it onto the floor. And I will not throw it onto the floor. But I think Britain has a lot to answer for in failing, all these 150-odd years, to give Hong Kong democracy, and now in the final hours (in trying) to scramble to do it."
Others view Patten's approach as exactly the wrong way to deal with Beijing.
"There is no doubt in my mind that he doesn't understand China," said Allen Lee, head of a group of business-oriented legislators that opposes any confrontation with Beijing. "As long as Chris Patten is still here, Hong Kong will have to live through a very long period of uncertainty. . . . I think the Hong Kong people will suffer. Investor confidence will suffer. Chris Patten will leave in 1997, but the Hong Kong people have to live with the consequences."
People on both sides of the dispute tend to agree that Patten's personal ambition is also a factor.
"There is a conspiracy theory that he is doing this just for himself, that it's just for his own glory," said legislator Fred Li.
"He certainly would like to continue his political career after 1997," Lau said. "So he certainly does not want Hong Kong to be his Waterloo. Some people may say, 'Oh, well, he has his own agenda; we don't trust him.' But I guess in this case, his own agenda probably acts in our favor.
"I think Chris Patten knows that his reputation, as well as the reputation of his government, is at stake. He obviously has come here with a mission. It's a way for Britain to prepare the retreat with honor."