Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, said on Monday that independence advocates are “deluding” themselves and “fractioning” support for the city’s democracy movement.

“Hong Kong is a great city; it’s not a nation-state. As a great city, you probably have a more intimate and explicit sense of citizenship than pretty well anywhere else in Asia,” Patten said. “But as soon as the argument moves from suffrage to independence, you start to lose support. You start to lose support internationally, and you start to lose support at home.”

Chris Patten at the HKU forum. Photo: Stand News.

Patten made the remarks at a forum with around 500 student audience members at the University of Hong Kong about the territory’s future.

‘Not a CPC fan’

HKU alum and localist politician Edward Leung of Hong Kong Indigenous asked Patten at the forum: “If we are going to give up our sincere political views just to pacify the dictatorship, are we trying to form another kind of ‘controlocracy’ in Hong Kong?”

The term “controlocracy” is used by Oxford scholar Stein Ringen in his new book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century to describe the sophisticated dictatorship of China based on control.

Calling Leung “dead wrong,” Patten said: “I’m not sure what exactly your plan is for overthrowing the Communist Party in China, but let me tell you what my view is of China: I’m a huge admirer of China, of Chinese culture, of Chinese history, of Chinese art… I’m not a great fan of Leninism and the Chinese Communist Party.”

He said the China Liaison Office – Beijing’s organ in Hong Kong – often confuses Chinese civilisation and leadership in its statements.

“If you think that here in Hong Kong, in the next [two to five years], you can overthrow the Chinese Communist Party, and that Hong Kong can become independent, I just think you’re deluding yourself,” Patten said. “You may be deluding yourself for good reasons, it may be very easy to make good and very eloquent, fiery speeches – and which understandably get applause – but I don’t think you’re giving your colleagues very smart advice.”

Edward Leung. File Photo: StandNews.

‘Democracy, not independence’

The ex-governor said he wanted to hear localists say things which would “ensure that people around the world continue to admire” Hong Kong’s democracy movement as they did during the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests. It is important to know when to “cash in your moral chips,” he said.

Patten criticised the independence-leaning camp for “fractioning and minimising” support for Hong Kong while “risking what you want to achieve ending calamitously.”

“I’d be sad – genuinely sad – if the argument about democracy was diverted into another stream where I think it would simply run away into the sand,” he said.

Patten added: “I’m not saying this because I’m a wimp. I’m not saying this because my support for democracy in Hong Kong has weakened. I’m saying this because I don’t want to see the case of democracy weakened by introducing another element into the whole debate which I just don’t think is going to take off. So I respect the strength of your convictions, but I just happen to think you are wrong.”

Patten made similar remarks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club last Friday. He said the city will not win independence from China and that such a campaign dilutes support for democracy.

Chris Patten. Photo: HKFP.

Patten also said on Saturday that self-determination is similar to independence. He said self-determination is not possible “except in the sense that when you vote for your own government, you’ll be able to shape the sort of government that you’ve got.”

Identity politics

A student said that a feature of the pro-independence movement is the growing sense of the Hong Kong identity. “Many people don’t think we are part of China. Given the situation now, how shall we move on?” the student asked Patten.

Patten said recent events such as Brexit and the Trump presidency – and “to some extent Maoist nationalism” – are examples of politics and identity. He said most polls suggest people in Hong Kong identify themselves as Hong Kong Chinese, which he thinks is “admirable.”

“In New York, people identify themselves of course as Americans, but as New York Americans, but they’re still patriotic. So I think it’s possible – and indeed admirable – to have a commitment to your local community without thinking that it denies your ethnicity or race or religion,” Patten said.

File Photo: Cloud.

He added that democracy is not a Western concept, and that everyone across the world – not just “Britain, America or India” – are entitled to human rights.

The former governor said the British government had not done enough to introduce open elections to Hong Kong, and that it now has a moral responsibility to help the people of Hong Kong speak up.

But Patten said he believes Hong Kong will attain universal suffrage by 2047. The Basic Law provides that Hong Kong’s “previous capitalist system and way of life” will remain unchanged until that year.

Pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po wrote on its front page that Patten “smeared Hong Kong’s democratic progress, incited the UK to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs and glamourised illegal Occupy protests” at his talk with HKU students.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.