07/17/2014 05:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chris Patten's Last Tango in Hong Kong

SHANGHAI -- Seventeen years after sailing on Britain's Royal Yacht away from Hong Kong, the tango dancer is on the move again.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, was no stranger in picking fights with China. Before relinquishing the colonial administration to China in 1997, he was fighting daily battles, mostly verbal, with Chinese officials. One of the labels he received from his opponents was "tango dancer," a reference not to his slinky charms on the dance floor, but to a comment he had made about whether or not there would be further talks with Beijing, namely that it took two to tango. Tango dancing has made Governor Patten's head dizzy and speech incoherent, his critics said.

The tango dancer's steps do not seem to have gone any rusty after all these years. Just when the former British colony is encountering political turbulence as political opposition groups threaten to occupy the central business district if they don't get universal suffrage according to their formula, Lord Patten, who has generally avoided commenting on Hong Kong since the handover, has entered the fray.

In an article in The WorldPost, Lord Patten criticized China's rulers for not taking a giant step forward by recognizing that the Hong Kong opposition's aspirations are not a threat to the country's well-being. He wrote that China, "a great country and a growing power, is handling its economic affairs with more sophistication and a surer touch than it is addressing its political challenges."

"Eventually, Hong Kong's people will get what they want, despite China's objections; freedom invariably wins in the end," he proclaimed.

In an interview with the Financial Times recently, Lord Patten also said he felt compelled to speak out because of a recent Chinese "white paper" that said Hong Kong judges should be "patriotic." He went further and claimed London would never have signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration had the language been the same as Beijing is now using. "We couldn't possibly have signed a white paper which said that the joint declaration is really a single declaration," he told the paper.

The Joint Declaration, signed between London and Beijing in 1984, provided the terms under which Hong Kong was returned to China. In Lord Patten's own words, that agreement "guaranteed Hong Kong's way of life for 50 years under Deng Xiaoping's slogan 'One country, two systems.' The rule of law and the freedoms associated with pluralism -- due process and the freedom of speech, assembly, and worship -- were to remain the bedrock of Hong Kong's prosperity and stability."

Lord Patten made it sound like the "One country, two systems" arrangement has collapsed by noting that tens of thousands of Hong Kongers were demonstrating for liberty recently: "They want a fair and open system for electing their government, and to defend the freedom and rule of law that make Hong Kong so special and successful, a genuinely liberal -- in the classical sense -- society."

Nothing is further from the truth. Seventeen years into Chinese rule, Hong Kong remains very vibrant under the rule of law with all its freedoms intact. Nothing that the people of Hong Kong could freely do under British rule has become untouchable since 1997. One tiny but telling example perhaps should dispel any notion that Hong Kongers are losing freedom under Chinese rule. While Falun Gong, a spiritual movement of a cultist bent, is banned inside China, its followers have been operating freely and openly in the Special Administrative Region. No one can avoid Falun Gong's in-your-face banners in prime locations all over Hong Kong.

Ironically, the focus of the political debate in Hong Kong today -- universal suffrage -- was not even an issue for the last governor or any of his 27 predecessors to lift a finger with during the entire 155 years when Hong Kong was a British colony. A hard truth, which Lord Patten and the opposition conveniently ignore today, remains a fact: London didn't bother with democracy until the very final years of its rule in Hong Kong.

The late John Walden, director of home affairs in the colonial government until the early 1980s, lived through this British hypocrisy most of his life. Calling the late introduction of democracy to Hong Kong a "grand illusion," Mr. Walden said it all in a speech in 1985: "If I personally find it difficult to believe in the sincerity of this sudden and unexpected official enthusiasm for democratic politics it is because throughout the 30 years I was an official myself, from 1951 to 1981, 'democracy' was a dirty word. Officials were convinced that the introduction of democratic politics into Hong Kong would be the quickest and surest way to ruin Hong Kong's economy and create social and political instability."

If one tries to search for any mention of "universal suffrage" in the Joint Declaration, signed 30 years ago and now deemed sacred by Lord Patten, one would be terribly disappointed. It is not there. On the issue of political leadership in the SAR, the document only stated "The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People's Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally." That's all. In other words, London accepted that chief executives of the SAR could be selected in a similar manner as how governors were appointed by the British.

For Lord Patten, who was selected as governor by no one but then prime minister John Major and appointed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, to be lambasting China for not allowing his successors be democratically elected, is laughable to say the least.

The notion of universal suffrage was in fact first introduced in the Basic Law drafted by Beijing. Article 45 of this mini-constitution of Hong Kong carries similar language from the Joint Declaration: "The Chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People's Government."

However, the Basic Law goes further: "The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."

Please be reminded that for "universal suffrage" this ultimate aim to materialize, the Basic Law has stipulated a number of criteria: it has to look into the "actual situation," to follow the "principle of gradual and orderly progress," and to nominate candidates by a "nominating committee."

Instead of celebrating the first ever opportunity of electing the chief executive by universal suffrage in Hong Kong's history and trying to work out the details of the election as early as 2017, the radical opposition is attempting to destroy legal procedures for the sake of an overtly partisan agenda. Who actually is blocking universal suffrage in Hong Kong? Lord Patten has been barking up the wrong tree.

With this latest dazzling performance by the tango dancer, it's even more difficult for the opposition to see the light and follow the legal and proper steps to reach a compromise on the election of the chief executive.