Pardon a little nostalgia every time Hong Kong’s last and best colonial governor comes to town. Unlike the revolving door of aloof, stiff-upper-lip diplomats who occupied Governor’s House before him, Chris Patten was a man of the people who truly stood up for Hong Kong as British rule came to a stormy end.

Unfortunately, however, when Patten arrived in the city in 1992, five years before the final curtain fell on 156 years of British sovereignty, the die had already been cast and nothing he could say or do would change anything that has led, 19 years later, to the gloomy predicament we find ourselves in today.

chris patten
Chris Patten. /HKFP/Apple Daily.
Chris Patten
Photo: TIME Magazine.

Patten was not a diplomat. Rather, he was a career politician with a sharp mind and quick wit who had risen in the Conservative Party to become Minister for Overseas Development, Secretary of State for the Environment and, just prior to being appointed as this city’s 28th governor, the party chairman who played a pivotal role in engineering a Conservative victory in the 1992 general election, after which his close friend, Prime Minister John Major, offered him Hong Kong’s can of handover worms.

Ironically, Patten was free to take the post as, after a nasty campaign during which both he and his family had been threatened and even physically abused, he lost his own House of Commons seat in the constituency of Bath despite charting his party to an overall victory in a vote that many thought the Tories would lose.

From Day 1—July 9, 1992—Patten was a very different kind of governor who would stand up valiantly—albeit also ultimately in vain—to both Beijing and London in the interest of ordinary Hong Kong people.

If only our post-handover chief executives had done and would do the same…

Patten’s 1994-95 political reforms ushered in a Legislative Council that was dramatically more democratic—so much so that the Chinese government would condemn him for what it claimed was a violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and then order the dissolution of that council immediately following the 1997 handover.

1997 Handover
The 1997 handover. Photo: Stand News.

“The whore of the East” became Patten’s new moniker among the more zealous members of the mainland media. In Hong Kong, however, he had become known more affectionately as “Fat Pang”—yes, because he ate too many egg tarts and it showed but also because his love of that local delicacy seemed to represent his larger love for our city.

As tensions between his administration and the Chinese leadership rose, Patten further endeared himself to people of Hong Kong when he called on the Major government to grant them right of abode in Britain after the handover.

Of course, his good friend the prime minister ignored his request, and the matter was dropped. But, still, unlike our leaders today, at least Patten tried to do what was best for Hong Kong. His accomplishments in LegCo may have been struck down at the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1997, but his spirit of urbane, principled resistance carried on.

Chris Patten.
Chris Patten. Photo: HKFP.

When Patten’s predecessor as governor, Sir David Wilson, returns to his old stamping ground, he quietly takes a room at the Mandarin Oriental, reconnects with old colleagues and friends and makes no controversial public pronouncements. Ever the cautious diplomat.

Patten, on the other hand, jumps right back into the fray, as he did last week delivering a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in which he took on Hong Kong’s independence movement for what it is—a crock of nonsense supported by misguided, puerile stunts of protest that, instead of advancing the cause of democracy in the city, makes a bad joke of that cause and diminishes its legitimacy.

“I still have great admiration for those who campaign for democracy,” the former governor said, “but not for those whose campaign dilutes support for democracy and makes a mockery of a serious political argument.”

Yau Wai-ching Baggio Leung
Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching outside the High Court. Photo: Cloud.

No doubt he was referring to the ongoing drama surrounding the ousted lawmakers from the localist Youngspiration party, Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, whose refusal to recite their LegCo oaths last month with any semblance of propriety has led to a series of unfortunate events culminating in yet another noxious “interpretation” of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

The ongoing legal appeals by the banned legislators notwithstanding, that interpretation will almost certainly be upheld and Hong Kong will be less free than it was before Leung and Yau began their deluded campaign.

See also: Chris Patten is wrong to think Hongkongers will get full democracy if they just follow Beijing’s script

For his efforts on behalf of Hong Kong, Patten was denounced by Beijing as “a sinner for 1,000 years.”

While the Youngspiration duo won’t be around quite that long, their sin has turned out to be a blessing for a Chinese leadership always looking for ways to undermine Hong Kong’s legitimate ambitions for greater democracy.

We miss you, Fat Pang. You were the real deal, and we haven’t seen anyone with anything close to your combination of style and intellect since.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.