HONG KONG -- Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, on Wednesday urged protesters not to “lose faith” over what he described as moves by Beijing to tighten its control over the semi-autonomous city.
The former British colony was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that gives it its own legal system and more freedoms than on the mainland. It has been rocked over the past year by huge rallies that exposed deep divisions between democracy-minded Hong Kongers and the Communist Party-ruled central government in Beijing.
The protests began over a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to the mainland for trial, and continued for more than seven months over police conduct and perceptions that Beijing is tightening its controls over the city’s affairs.
The demonstrations, which were largely peaceful at first, over the months descended into occasionally violent clashes between police and protesters. More than 8,000 arrests were made.
“They shouldn’t lose heart. They shouldn’t lose their sense of dignity and decency and moderation,” Patten said in an online interview organized by The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.
“I don’t think you can kill or lock up or tear gas into submission the idea of freedom,” said Patten, who was Hong Kong’s last colonial governor before the city was returned to China and helped negotiate the terms of the handover. He has often been critical of developments in Hong Kong since then, saying the terms were violated.
Hong Kong's police force has been accused of excessive use of force during the demonstrations. Protesters have thrown gasoline bombs in retaliation and occupied streets and college campuses, turning them into battlegrounds against the police.
Patten urged people to “stand up for what they believe in” and vote in legislative elections in September.
He criticized a recent report by the city’s police watchdog that exonerated officers' use of force, and described the recent arrests of 15 pro-democracy activists on charges of unlawful assembly as “outrageous.”
“It’s a threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy and to the ‘one country, two systems,’ " he said, adding that the arrests were an attempt to intimidate the rest of Hong Kong.
In response to Patten’s comments, China’s foreign ministry in Hong Kong said in a statement that Patten was instigating the young people of Hong Kong to continue to act like hooligans as “cannon fodder for political gain.”
He was also accused of distorting the “one country, two systems” principle, and of smearing China’s international image, according to the ministry’s statement.
“Chris Patten is a sinner of a thousand years who will definitely be nailed to history’s pillar of shame,” the statement said.
Patten, who introduced democratic reforms in Hong Kong toward the end of his tenure as governor, has urged Britain to speak up for the territory. Beijing last October accused him of being a “black hand” behind the protest movement after he called a regulation banning protesters from wearing face coverings “absolute madness.”
Patten also hit out at Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday, saying she was not performing her job with the “greatest integrity” as Beijing tightens controls over the city.
“The government seem to be the mechanism through which the Communist leadership in Beijing runs Hong Kong and makes its decisions. Carrie Lam will have to live with her conscience,” he said.