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Holding Out in Hong Kong

Hong Kong, says Sir S.Y. Chung in his memoir, included in the useful book Hong Kong Remembers, “has benefitted over the years from the lack of democracy.” He explains that in the late 1950s and 60s there had been demands for a minimum wage for workers, and “if there had been any form of democracy then, the Government would have been under pressure to meet these demands…” I heard similar arguments from various people in Hong Kong in April. Democracy, I was told by a man with strong pro-Beijing sympathies, promotes “welfarism.” The man in question, named Shiu Sin Por, runs a pro-Beijing think tank, sits on various Chinese committees supervising the takeover, and acts as an adviser to the New China News Agency in Hong Kong. He has lived in the US and speaks, or rather shouts, in a quasi-American voice. There he was, then, a Chinese patriot feeding me Beijing’s lines in a Yankee accent: “One man, one vote,” he screeched, “would be the end of Hong Kong! Lots of welfare and high taxes!”

Socialism is the last thing China says it wants to see in Hong Kong. Indeed the mini-constitution, or Basic Law, of the future Special Administrative Region rules it out: “The socialist system shall not be practised in Hong Kong.” What Beijing and the tycoons seem to want instead is a giant business park, a low-tax, low-wage milk-cow, drained, as much as possible, of democratic politics. C.H. Tung speaks of “depoliticising” Hong Kong. By calling this “Chinese values,” he has turned a racist stereotype into a policy: Chinamen who care only about money. Except for one token union man, the people he has appointed in his future Executive Council are all businessmen. One of them, Leung Chun-ying, is a property broker, who will be in charge of housing policy—a conflict of interests, you might think, but this is Hong Kong. Another is the businessman Raymond Ch’ien. Leung told the Far Eastern Economic Review: “There has been too much pandering to public opinion by the legislature.” Ch’ien added, “Once the transition is behind us, political issues will not be given priority.”6

In 1990, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Gordon Wu told me just what he thought of the democrats in Hong Kong. “All this shouting,” he said, “will do them no damned good. I don’t see any advantage in being a politician. There’s no money in it.”


Zigong asked: “How does one deserve to be called a gentleman?” The Master said: “He who behaves with honor, and being sent on a mission to the four corners of the world, does not bring disgrace to his lord, deserves to be called a gentleman.”

—Confucius: Analects

Dwarfed by a forest of new skyscrapers, Government House, where the British Governor lives and works, looks like a fuddy-duddy relic of Empire, a Gilbert and Sullivan set left behind in corporate Hong Kong. Its nucleus was built in the Victorian classical style. A grander bit was added later in the colonial mode, and to make the place look more Oriental, the Japanese had an absurd little tower put up, like a fancy-dress Japanese hat, during the war.

The waiting room, with stacks of Country Life magazines and Nigel Nicolson’s Great Houses of Britain on the table, does nothing to dispel the fuddy-duddy air. Yet if Beijing and its patriotic supporters are to be believed, this place has become, over the last six years, a hotbed of subversive, democratic radicalism. Unlike his predecessors, a plumed succession of empire-building mandarins and feline connoisseurs of “the Chinese mind,” Governor Chris Patten is a politician—a Tory politician. When he arrived in 1992, the main deals between London and Beijing had been done—sometimes openly, but more often furtively, secretly, perhaps even a little guiltily. It was now up to a politician to shepherd the deals through without too much turbulence or loss of face. Since London had promised Hong Kong democracy, Chris Patten, an honorable man, introduced, for the first time, a semblance of democracy.

The legislature had always been a largely advisory body of local notables, some of whom were appointed, and some elected by their peers in functional constituencies. Patten’s electoral reforms, passed by the Legco in 1994, allowed Hong Kong citizens to elect lawmakers directly. The reaction among the tycoons, Tatlerites, and most foreign businessmen was negative, even downright abusive. Who was this British politico, who knew nothing about the ways of Hong Kong, to upset the old order, or worse, upset Beijing? The man was a menace to business! Pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong called Patten a “serpent” and a “strutting prostitute.” Lu Ping, Beijing’s top official in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said Patten was “to be regarded as the criminal of all time.” Prime Minister Li Peng said Patten’s reforms were a “perfidious” attempt to “create disorder and impede the smooth transfer of power.” So to restore order, Beijing appointed a “provisional legislature,” filled with patriots, many of whom had lost the election in 1995, to replace the elected politicians on July 1, 1997.

The rulers in Beijing apparently believed that Patten’s attempt to introduce democracy in the last hours of British rule was a deliberate anti-Chinese plot. Instead of handing over a docile colony, flush with cash, he would leave a counterrevolutionary bastion, drained of cash. As Mark Roberti points out in his excellent book, The Fall of Hong Kong, the Chinese had never agreed to Hong Kong having a fully democratic system in 1997. But for reasons of public relations, in Hong Kong and London, the British pretended that they had. Presumably Patten knew, when he arrived in Hong Kong in 1992, that his democratic reforms were liable to be reversed by Beijing. He allowed Hong Kong citizens to have a sniff of democracy, knowing it would be whisked away from under their noses, as in some macabre practical joke. No wonder Hong Kong’s democrats are not sure who betrayed them more, the Chinese or the British. At least Patten’s predecessors, the diplomatic China hands, had exacted promises from Beijing that a partially elected legislature would have continued after the handover. So why did Patten do it? Was it the pride of a professional politician? Was he simply being naive? Was he perhaps a sadist? Or did he do the only honorable thing?

Roberti believes Patten’s reforms “were a smoke screen put up so the British could avoid feeling guilty about turning six million people over to a brutal regime.” Maybe so. But there is an expedient argument to be made for doing the only decent thing. Patten, after staring for some time at his shoes, put it to me at Government House. If he had agreed to Chinese demands, to “do the dirty work for them,” to settle for less freedom, the consequences would have been “political turmoil”: “How much worse if I had been responsible for counterfeit elections.” Beijing wanted a reelection committee to decide which legislators elected in 1995 were patriotic enough to continue in 1997. “Imagine the political turmoil if I had agreed to that. Imagine the headlines. How would we have explained that?”

It is, of course, a mark of the first governor-politician that he would worry about explaining anything at all. Old-style governors didn’t explain, at least not in public. Nor, for that matter, do diplomats. Patten’s fiercest British critic is Sir Percy Cradock, former ambassador in Beijing, foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and the man who made the backroom deals with China over Hong Kong. Sir Percy is one of those melancholy figures who spent a lifetime studying the Chinese mind while rather despising its human vessels. China’s rulers, he famously said, “have always been thugs, are thugs, and always will be thugs.”7 His conclusions, however, are remarkably similar to those of the thugs and their patriotic allies: politics are a menace. “Up to 1992,” Cradock wrote in a recent polemic against Patten, “British policy in Hong Kong had been largely guided by officials…After 1992, however, politics was in command.”8 And that, he argues, is when the roof fell in.

Cradock blames Patten for ruining his secretive arrangements with China. These arrangements included a Chinese promise that by 2003 half the seats in the legislature would be elected. This wasn’t much, but it was something, and Cradock thinks Patten’s reforms wrecked the deal. So, in his opinion, did Martin Lee’s efforts to safeguard civil liberties. Lee’s Democratic Party is dismissed by Cradock with typical Foreign Office hauteur as a party which sees “special merit in a policy of defiance of China.” As though appeasement of China is necessarily a better policy. Lee recalls a conversation with Cradock in Hong Kong Remembers, which would be hilarious, if it weren’t so tragic:

The British believed then that it was better for Hong Kong to reach an agreement with China—no matter how bad the agreement—than to have no agreement at all. So I asked Sir Percy, “Why are these important decisions not taken by us, who are freely elected by the people of Hong Kong?” He said, “Because we are the sovereign power.” Then I said, “How do you know when you have reached China’s bottom line?” He said, “Well, now, if they tell us both in public and, more importantly, in private, that we have reached the bottom line, then I know.”

Cradock, who, after all, knows the Chinese mind, believes that Patten is “out of touch with local [Hong Kong] opinion.” Martin Lee and his fellow democrats, then, must be even more out of touch. For they believe Patten’s reforms did not go nearly far enough. And so, incidentally, does Patten. He told me that historians would criticize him, “rightly,” for “not having done enough.” The democrats particularly resent his giving in to China’s demand that a Court of Final Appeal, as the last guarantee of judicial autonomy, should only be appointed under Chinese sovereignty, and would have no jurisdiction over anything but economic affairs (“business, business, business”).

It is true that the democrats have a problem. To toe Beijing’s line, in Chinese propaganda parlance, is to be “patriotic”; to defy it is to be “anti-Chinese.” As Patten put it: “It has been difficult for some democrats not to appear as the Government House party.”9 Yet it is Sir Percy Cradock, not Patten, let alone Martin Lee, who is out of touch. For the democratic opposition to authoritarian rule is not a Government House party revolt against Chinese values, or the work of a Westernized elite, estranged from Asian ways. Hong Kong’s democratic movement came alive as a result of Tiananmen. It was part of a patriotic surge of support in Hong Kong for the demonstrators in China. Almost a million people came out into the streets. It was the first time masses of ordinary Hong Kong people had done such a thing. It was perhaps the first time young Hong Kong Chinese felt they had something in common with their mainland “compatriots”—not business, but politics.

  1. 6

    Far Eastern Economic Review, April 3, 1997, p. 21.

  2. 7

    Jonathan Mirsky, Index on Censorship, January 1997, p. 140.

  3. 8

    Prospect, April 1997.

  4. 9

    This propaganda line is echoed by some Western commentators. See, for example, William H. Overholt’s China: The Next Economic Superpower (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993). Overholt consistently calls the Hong Kong democrats “pro-British” and “anti-China.” This is like calling American critics of a US government “un-American.”

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