Was Hong Kong's last governor the right man to oversee its transition to China?

Chris Patten's tenure could be seen as Britain's arrogant attempt to impose its culture on a faraway territory

People wave Chinese national flags at Victoria Harbour promenade in Hong Kong on July 1, 2022. Getty Images
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When Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech celebrating “the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland” last week, he said the handover from the UK in 1997 marked “the beginning of a new era for the region” and that “the success of ‘one country, two systems’ has won recognition throughout the world”.

The principle that Hong Kong and Macau are part of One China, but retain the capitalist economic systems they had as European colonies, is certainly well-known.

Someone who would not agree on that model’s success, however, is Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. He has accused China of setting out to “destroy the Hong Kong that has been so successful for so long” and of undermining the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid out the conditions for Hong Kong’s return and governance thereafter.

To coincide with the anniversary, Mr Patten has just published the diaries he wrote during his governorship, which lasted from 1992 to 1997. They are a good read, as he writes honestly, wittily and with candour about Foreign Office types whom he felt let Hong Kong down. Mr Patten has also had a distinguished and honourable career in public service, including as a Conservative cabinet minister, European commissioner, chairman of the BBC Trust and chancellor of Oxford University. (As it happens, I voted for him in the contest to win that last role.)

But his Hong Kong diaries raise questions about whether he was ever the right man to oversee the transition to China, and whether – however much he thought he was acting in the best interests of Hong Kong – his tenure could be seen instead as a belated and arrogant attempt by an imperial power to impose its culture on an area far away, which had been taken with illegal threats and menaces in the first place.

Since Hong Kong was never British by right, it could never be for Britain to determine its future

Britain had 99 years – the length of its lease on the New Territories, which made up most of the former colony – to develop a democratic system in Hong Kong. Very little was done, however, until Mr Patten arrived and came to the conclusion that he would push fast for democratic reforms whether the Chinese authorities liked it or not. Many voiced their reservations about a course of action that inevitably caused fury in Beijing; it is to Mr Patten’s credit that he mentions many of them in his diaries.

They included a former Labour prime minister, James Callaghan; the then Conservative deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine; and Roy Jenkins, one of Britain’s foremost statesmen who had also been the prime ministerial candidate of the Liberal-SDP Alliance in the 1983 election. That means that one-time leaders of the UK’s three main parties all questioned the wisdom of this last-minute attempt to turn Hong Kong into a western-style liberal democracy.

There were plenty of others who shared this view, such as William Rees-Mogg, the establishment notable and former editor of The Times, Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, the industrialist Arnold Weinstock, The New York Times' Beijing correspondent Nicholas Kristof, and even Mr Patten’s press secretary Mike Hanson, who suspected the policy would “all end in tears”.

If there was animosity towards Mr Patten from the pro-Beijing camp – he was called many names – that was hardly surprising. In his diaries, he describes the Chinese authorities as “elderly bruisers” and writes that an evening celebrating China’s National Day was “as ghastly as ever”. Perhaps the then governor was polite enough to keep these thoughts to himself at the time, but his feelings will not have been a secret. Were these attitudes really helpful in effecting a harmonious transfer from coloniser to wronged Mother Country?

Mr Patten also states firmly that he believes in universal, not “localised”, values – a perfectly normal position to take in Europe; less so in East Asia, where many were and are proponents of varying formulations of the “Asian values” argument, as Singapore’s late leader Lee Kuan Yew made brutally clear in a speech while standing next to the new governor.

Chris Patten, the last governor of colonial Hong Kong, receives the Union Jack flag after it was lowered for the last time at Government House during a farewell ceremony in Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. AFP

More startling is Mr Patten’s view of feng shui: “I find it difficult to believe that this is a real science, let alone a set of almost spiritual beliefs, which should determine the decisions you take and the way you live.” Perhaps he did, but a greater awareness that to millions of people in the region, and not just those of Chinese ethnicity, feng shui is certainly not just “malarkey”, might have helped.

We know he didn’t think much of “Asian values”. Mr Patten’s dismissive description of a practice many take very seriously speaks to a certain disconnect with Asian culture, and with the norms prevalent in some East Asian societies. Of Singapore, for instance, he writes: “I admire a lot about this city state but I think I would need a lobotomy to live here.”

Mr Patten’s book may be mainly intended for a western audience. Maybe he doesn’t mind much how readers in the East might react to such comments. But perhaps his vision for Hong Kong was always a pipe-dream. Funnily enough, he acknowledges as much in the foreword to his own diaries: “The implacable reality that always confronted Hong Kong” was that “it was never to become an independent city state but must always remain a city in China trying to make its peace with whatever and whoever held sway in Beijing”.

That is what it has become, and if Mr Patten feels melancholy about that, he must surely agree that since Hong Kong was never British by right, it could never be for Britain – nor even a governor as well-intentioned as himself – to determine its future. “One country, two systems” will be “fully and faithfully” implemented, Mr Xi said last week, and it will be up to Beijing and Hong Kong, not the former colonial master, to decide what that means.

Published: July 05, 2022, 2:00 PM