Christopher Patten, identified by his official Chinese critics variously as “the whore” and “the serpent,” was an oddity in the long line of British governors of Hong Kong. Not only was he the last governor, but before his appointment he had been an active politician (who lost his Conservative parliamentary seat) instead of a diplomat or colonial civil servant. More than his predecessors he cared (or had to care) about being popular among his charges. Patten liked to go on “walkabouts” in poor Hong Kong neighborhoods, and press the flesh of ordinary folks. He was the first governor who refused to deck himself out in white hats and ostrich feathers. He invited TV crews onto his lawn, cozied up to journalists, and made public speeches. In short, he behaved more like a politician on the stump than a colonial governor, and since he wanted his governance to be based as much as possible on popular consent, in a sense that is what he was: a pol on an extended campaign without elections.
Patten’s task was difficult, indeed perhaps impossible. He had to hand over the last major British colony to the Communist government of China with a minimum of trouble or fuss. Until the last few years of its sovereignty, Britain had governed Hong Kong with economic laissez-faire and more or less benevolent political authoritarianism, a combination that appealed to the post-Maoist market-Leninists in Beijing. Hong Kong was to be handed over as a colonial possession from one imperial power to another. Of course in Chinese eyes, Hong Kong was an old possession that had been stolen under humiliating circumstances.
The problem for Patten was that by the time he arrived on the scene, it was too late for such a transaction to take place smoothly. Senior British diplomats with intimate knowledge of “the Chinese mind” were advocating a policy of discreet appeasement of China’s often bullying demands, and so were many members of the Hong Kong elite, whose lifelong habit of toadying to one colonial master was switched with remarkable ease to performing the same service for another.
But millions of Hong Kong people were visibly anxious about the deals being done over their heads (and behind their backs). The nature of the government in Beijing, and especially the events on Tiananmen Square in 1989, had convinced them that the benevolence of Chinese rule could not be taken on trust. Nor could British benevolence, but at least the British were constrained by a democratic government at home, and a legal system which guaranteed, among other things, the right to free speech. It was only reasonable, then, for people in Hong Kong to conclude that they needed their own democratically chosen representatives to protect civil liberties acquired under British rule—not just against Beijing, but also against the local fat cats who would govern in Beijing’s name.
Elections, of a limited kind, were not an entirely new concept in Hong Kong. Sir Mark Young, the first postwar governor, had…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.