July 1, 2017, marked 20 years since the British handover of Hong Kong to China.

The former British colony became an integral part of the People's Republic of China, while still maintaining most of its economic, political, and judicial freedoms until 2047.

In 2014, the "Umbrella Revolution" in Hong Kong gained significant international attention and put a spotlight on a widening rift between Hong Kong and the leadership in Beijing. 

Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists have been protesting against what they say is mainland China's growing encroachment on the city's freedoms in a breach of the "one country, two systems" arrangement.

Chris Patten was Britain's last governor of Hong Kong who oversaw the handover ceremony in 1997. In his final speech as governor, he said Britain would keep the promises it had made to the people of Hong Kong - that its way of life would continue for 50 years.

Al Jazeera's Felicity Barr speaks to Patten about the handover and Hong Kong-mainland China relations.

Al Jazeera: In your book, First Confession: A Sort of Memoir, you describe your experience as governor of Hong Kong as "the most interesting and worthwhile five years of your life". How did you feel 20 years ago?

Chris Patten: The job of being mayor, as it were, of Hong Kong was terrific. The job of negotiating with the Chinese I wouldn't say was terrific, because I was dealing with what was called the "struggle" school of diplomacy. But nevertheless, it was challenging - to use a polite word - and one was always aware of the really big issues of everyone concerned in those negotiations.

Al Jazeera: In your final speech as governor, you said that Britain had "provided the scaffolding that enabled the people of Hong Kong to ascend". To what extent do you think is that scaffolding now falling apart?

One of my advisors said that he couldn't understand why the Chinese didn't recognise that we've given them the keys to a Rolls Royce, and all they had to do was turn off the ignition and off she'd pop.

Chris Patten

Patten: I don't think it's falling apart, but I think it's threatened by Chinese behaviour. They've certainly pulled away one or two struts - and why has that happened?

For the first few years after the handover, China rode back on some of the proposals for "freer and fairer elections", but in large, they let things stand.

But I think what's happened since President Xi Jingping has been in office is that just as he's cracked down on dissidents in China, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, he's also increased the tightness of the grip that China has on Hong Kong's windpipe.

And that's a worry, because Hong Kong is guaranteed its freedoms under an international treaty between Britain and China.

Also, I think a lot of people will look at how China behaves in Hong Kong as an indication of whether or not you can trust China in the 21st century.

Al Jazeera: How concerned are you with how divided parts of Hong Kong are?

Patten: I think the divisions are a result of the behaviour of the Communist Party in China.

It must be profoundly unsettling for the Chinese authorities to discover that the majority of young people in Hong Kong don't want to think of themselves in any way as dwelling under the same roof as the Chinese Politburo.

I mean, they [young people] find the Chinese-Beijing view of the world very different from their own. And you see all that in opinion polls about people's sense of their own identity.

Al Jazeera: How much has Britain failed in its responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong?

Patten: I think there were some things that we could have done better, but in large, I think we made a pretty good fist of Hong Kong, and we handed over a going concern.

One of my advisors said that he couldn't understand why the Chinese didn't recognise that we've given them the keys to a Rolls Royce, and all they had to do was turn off the ignition and off she'd pop.

But that's the truth of the matter: we handed over a city, a territory, which was, to a considerable extent, made up of refugees of some of the awful events of modern Chinese history - the Great Famine, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution - in order to get away from the mainland.

As a city largely made up of refugees and immigrants from mainland China, you can't expect them to view being back in China's grasp with such huge enthusiasm.

Editor's note: This interview was conducted shortly before the death of Liu Xiaobo.

For more, watch the full episode of Talk to Al Jazeera on Hong Kong 20 years after the handover.

Source: Al Jazeera