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article imagePatten on egg tarts and the future of Hong Kong

By Laura MANNERING (AFP)     Sep 21, 2017 in World

In a suite at the harbourside Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, Chris Patten is whipping through rounds of interviews before an important visit from his tailor.

Having lost weight recently he needs new suits and running them up in the city, famous for its speedy and affordable couture, was preferable to taking them for alterations in London, he says.

Britain's last governor in Hong Kong was given the affectionate nickname "Fat Pang" during his five-year tenure and was known for his love of its ubiquitous egg tarts.

Twenty years since he sailed out on the Royal Yacht Britannia as Hong Kong was handed back to China, he frequently expresses a deeply held fondness for the place, which is still reciprocated by some residents of the semi-autonomous city.

To the fury of Beijing, Patten pushed a democratic agenda during his time at the helm and he regularly champions the importance of citizens having control over their own affairs in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

But on this trip his numerous addresses have seemed tinged with more frustration than in the past.

Hong Kong's former British colonial governor Chris Patten signs his new memoir "First Conf...
Hong Kong's former British colonial governor Chris Patten signs his new memoir "First Confession" after an interview with AFP at the harbourside Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong on September 21, 2017
Anthony WALLACE, AFP

In recent months, four pro-democracy lawmakers have been disqualified from the city's legislature and three activists, including student leader Joshua Wong, have been jailed for their role in a protest that sparked huge Umbrella Movement rallies calling for democratic reforms in 2014.

Speaking with AFP, Patten described the current political atmosphere as "poisonous", blaming the failure of the government to engage in dialogue with democracy campaigners.

"I think the fact that didn't happen has meant that today the atmosphere is rather more poisonous than I've ever known it and people seem more concerned about the future," he said.

- China threat -

Patten has long voiced regret that Britain did not push China towards a more democratic system ahead of the handover and says recent events have intensified that feeling.

The city has a partially directly elected legislature and a leader chosen by a committee loyal to Beijing.

China's restrictions on the promised reform of that system sparked the 2014 rallies.

Patten says Chinese authorities should not ignore how their behaviour towards Hong Kong is perceived and should care about whether people believe them when they make promises.

Hong Kong's former British colonial governor Chris Patten was given the affectionate nickname &...
Hong Kong's former British colonial governor Chris Patten was given the affectionate nickname "Fat Pang" during his five-year tenure and was known for his love of its ubiquitous egg tarts
Anthony WALLACE, AFP

Not to do so would mean a "rockier time" ahead in terms of trade and other relations.

Fear of the consequences from Beijing has backed the city into a corner over bridging a divide with activists, he says.

"Some people are nervous that if they suggest a dialogue they will be cut off at the knees by the Communist Party," he says.

That failure to engage has pushed some frustrated campaigners to call for independence, something that has incensed Beijing and local authorities.

Patten also criticised the Hong Kong government for its weak response over two alleged abductions from Hong Kong by Chinese agents -- one of a bookseller known for publishing salacious titles about Chinese political leaders, the other a mainland tycoon who disappeared from the Four Seasons hotel.

"Where was the outcry then from the government or anybody else?" he says.

- A beautiful place -

Patten is in Hong Kong promoting a new memoir called "First Confession" which looks at politics and identity -- something at the heart of the city's divisions.

Hong Kong's former British colonial governor Chris Patten poses during an interview with AFP at...
Hong Kong's former British colonial governor Chris Patten poses during an interview with AFP at the harbourside Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong on September 21, 2017
Anthony WALLACE, AFP

While Beijing urges loyalty and warns against any challenge to its sovereignty over Hong Kong, many young campaigners feel distant from the mainland and have a growing sense of local identity.

Patten has consistently said he does not agree with calls for independence, but believes there should be room for individual values.

"I don't feel that people in Hong Kong should have to define their Chineseness in the same way that someone who is a member of the Communist Party in Beijing would feel obliged to," he told AFP.

On a table in his hotel suite sits a box of egg tarts.

"I couldn't conceivably consume the tonnes of egg tarts that I've been given over the years, not least given my girth, but, yes, I love egg tarts," he says.

Workers prepare egg tarts prior to sale at the Tai Cheong bakery in Hong Kong  which dined out on th...
Workers prepare egg tarts prior to sale at the Tai Cheong bakery in Hong Kong, which dined out on the popularity of its egg tarts with former British governor Chris Patten
MIKE CLARKE, AFP/File

As he looks out of the window, Patten says he wishes he had time to go for a walk in the hills, describing Hong Kong as "a much more beautiful place that some people understand".

Despite the current political climate, he says he feels encouraged that young people who were not even born when he was governor believe passionately in democratic values.

The city's freedoms and rule of law have helped make it a "decent and successful place", he says.

"I hope it continues to be."

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