LONDON — BRITAIN is preparing to appoint the next (and probably the last) governor of Hong Kong. The colony is due to be handed back to China in mid-1997.
Officials at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, say the strongest candidate for the sensitive job is Chris Patten, chairman of the ruling Conservative Party. Mr. Patten ran the government's successful reelection campaign but lost his own parliamentary seat in the April 9 poll.
Last week Prime Minister John Major offered Patten the job of smoothing the way for Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty under the 1984 agreement negotiated with Beijing by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The agreement says the colony will remain an autonomous capitalist enclave for 50 years after the handover. There are fears in London and Hong Kong, however, that unless Britain uses a mixture of firmness and kid gloves in dealing with Beijing in the next five years, pressure from the mainland authorities will undermine local confidence and lead to a full-scale political and economic takeover of Hong Kong by China.
Downing Street sources say Patten, an able administrator with demonstrated political skills, could have the job if he wanted it.
But Patten's friends indicated that he was hesitating because acceptance would probably mean his permanent exit from British politics.
If he remained in Britain, and if he could find a safe parliamentary seat, Patten could expect a senior ministerial post in Mr. Major's government.
In Hong Kong, the prospect of a politician of Patten's caliber becoming governor was warmly welcomed by civil servants and business leaders.
An official at a leading Hong Kong bank said in a telephone interview: "We need somebody who is prepared to work hard at building confidence with China's leadership, but who is prepared to be tough if necessary. Patten would have the ear of Major, and his presence here would help to build a sense of security."
The post of Hong Kong governor is one of the world's last great colonial jobs. It carries a tax-free annual salary of 140,000 pounds ($239,000).
The governor presides over Hong Kong's legislative council, which has only a few elected members, and is in absolute control of the Hong Kong civil service. He is expected to maintain close working relations with the authorities in Beijing.
Until Patten was mentioned as a likely candidate, David Owen, the former foreign secretary, and Sir Geoffrey Howe, the former deputy prime minister under Mrs. Thatcher, were seen as strong prospects.
Patten, however, is a close personal friend of the prime minister and, according to British government sources, would command Major's full confidence.
By using Patten's parliamentary defeat as the occasion for offering him the Hong Kong job, however, Major has attracted criticism.
The influential Observer newspaper commented April 19 that "the most sensitive colonial task left to Britain" should not be treated "like a tawdry bauble being tossed between unseated politicians." The Observer added that the best choice for the job would be a local Hong Kong Chinese.
British diplomats also were known to be unhappy at the prospect of a politician getting the job. The private Foreign Office consensus appears to be that a diplomat able to speak Chinese would be better.
In London, Foreign Office officials refused to comment publicly on the likelihood that Patten would be given the post, saying only that an announcement could be expected in a few weeks.