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The business of Hong Kong has long been business - a happy marriage of Chinese entrepreneurial flair and British administrative rectitude.

Now, the romance is in jeopardy as the business elite wages a battle with Chris Patten, the colony's last governor, over how to deal with China, which takes Hong Kong when Britain's lease expires next year on July 1.Business people accuse Patten of alienating China with democratic reforms at a time when its goodwill is most needed.

Patten accuses the wealthy of caring more about making China happy than about defending Hong Kong's freedoms.

The tussle has led to the unusual spectacle of business leaders uniting against their governor and going over his head to complain to British Prime Minister John Major.

Major replied Friday that Patten was doing his best for Hong Kong, and that business people "owe him gratitude." They hit back Monday, saying the taxpayer did not have to be grateful to the governor simply for doing his job.

That business is cool to Patten's democratic reforms is understandable. Hong Kong's wealth derives largely from trade with China, and its business people are naturally reluctant to rock the boat.

So it was no surprise that when Beijing set about choosing its preparatory committee of Hong Kong and Chinese notables to manage the change of sovereignty, it stacked the panel with business people rather than with left-wing ideological allies.

Patten went on the offensive after the 150-member committee overwhelmingly endorsed China's plan to disband his brainchild, Hong Kong's elected legislature.

In an interview with Newsweek, he spoke of "privileged people" signing on to arrangements "whose sole intention is to choke off the voice" of public opinion.

He then touched a raw nerve by saying many of them "have foreign passports in their back pockets" - the implication being that unlike ordinary people, the rich don't need civil liberties because they can get out if things go sour after 1997.

That led to a turning point in relations between the governor and the business leaders. Seven leading business associations took the unprecedented step of sending a joint letter of protest to Major in London.

Patten, they said, had done Hong Kong "a great disservice" at a time when it needed to inspire the world's confidence in its ability to manage the change of sovereignty. His remarks were "inappropriate and divisive," and "cast doubt on the integrity of the business community," they said.

Major replied by firmly backing Patten, his friend and political ally.

He said the disservice was done by China and the preparatory committee through their statements casting doubt on the future of Hong Kong's democracy and civil rights.