Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, was not a democratically elected leader. But he and the British government he represented negotiated a deal with Beijing that left Hong Kong with a semi-democratic legislature, under an arrangement known as One Country, Two Systems.
Twenty years later, Lord Patten is offering sound advice to Hong Kong's understandably frustrated democratic activists: Keep demanding more democracy – but steer clear of calling for independence from China. The communist regime in Beijing can make concessions on the former. It cannot yield on the latter.
Two young politicians elected to the Legislative Council of Hong Kong who favour independence, and who have so far not been allowed to take their seats, were present at a seminar Lord Patten took part in last month. He spoke to them sharply, in effect saying that they should drop the independence idea, and concentrate on achieving greater democracy.
For example, many of the seats in the Hong Kong legislature are elected not by voters under rep-by-pop, but by "functional constituencies." Their voters are small numbers of business people and lobby groups. These rotten boroughs ensure that the legislature does not fully represent the wishes of Hong Kong's people.
Turning Hong Kong into another independent Singapore might be a wonderful thing, but Beijing won't tolerate such a move. And most residents of Hong Kong likely do not favour pure independence. Yet a number of Hong Kong's loudest pro-democracy activists have recently been pursuing that line.
Further raising the temperature in the debate, a judge of the high court in Hong Kong recently ruled that anyone who advocates independence is disqualified from holding any public office.
This extremely dubious judgment undermines Hong Kong's reputation for upholding the rule of law. Politically biased decisions such as this one will eat away at the island's judiciary.
Beijing recognizes One Country, Two Systems. Hong Kong's democracy activists stand a chance of success if they dispense with questions about the first part of that formulation, while pushing hard to enhance the practice of the latter.