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The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong

by Jonathan Dimbleby
Little Brown, 461 pp., £22.50

It is unusual in British political life for a high official to leave his position and immediately reveal in his own words or through an intermediary what in his opinion really happened while he was in office. Furthermore, unless he has been roughly dismissed, it is perhaps unprecedented for such an official to claim that almost everyone with whom he worked, and especially his superiors, betrayed him or failed to support him.

Chris Patten, the twenty-eighth and last governor of Hong Kong, has done precisely that, using his close friend Jonathan Dimbleby to tell how, when he struggled to bring what he always called “a modest degree of democracy” to Hong Kong’s 6.3 million people, he was obstructed by the Foreign Office and some of his old cabinet colleagues, and disappointed by his two closest friends in government, Prime Minister John Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

Jonathan Dimbleby is a famous British television anchorman and the author of the biography The Prince of Wales, in which for the first time Prince Charles admitted adultery. In The Last Governor Chris Patten, by giving hitherto secret information to Dimbleby, has created a major political scandal in the UK, in which retired officials of the highest rank stand condemned of what Dimbleby terms “betrayal.” One of them, ex-Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, says that “Christopher Patten’s reputation…will suffer from his unwise decision to place the record of his governorship at the mercy of this celebrity journalist who smells ‘betrayal’ round every corner.”1

How has this extraordinary book come about? Dimbleby, a lucid and eloquent writer, says that, during Patten’s entire term in Hong Kong, “I had easy access to the governor and his team…. With the proviso that what he said would be embargoed until after the handover.” Patten, he says, “agreed in advance to discuss—for the future record—his strategy and his tactics at every stage of what was to become a serious and sustained diplomatic crisis, the consequences of which are still uncertain.” All of this, Dimbleby adds, “without benefit of hindsight.”

Having made this enviable but risky arrangement, Dimbleby was with Patten when he took the plane to Hong Kong as governor in the summer of 1992. In the television series which accompanied the book in the UK we see Patten and his wife and daughters looking out of the window of their plane as it prepares to land. Every few months for the next five years Dimbleby reappeared in Hong Kong for exclusive interviews and conversations with the governor and his staff, sometimes during their most dramatic crises. He managed as well to interview other senior officials close to Patten. Some of these told him remarkable things. Lord Hurd, the now-retired foreign secretary, admitted to Dimbleby that he “forgot” to tell Chris Patten, his close friend and colleague, that Britain and China had an agreement which, had Patten been told of it, would have forced him to modify part of his program to allow direct elections in Hong Kong—the program that provoked Peking into calling Patten “the triple violator” of British-Chinese diplomatic understandings.

Two sections of The Last Governor have drawn particular attention. In 1984, just after the agreement with Peking on the terms of the 1997 hand-over, the British published a proposal to permit “a very small number of directly elected members” in 1988 to join the fifty-six-member Legislative Council. (By 1991 it had sixty members.) This was supported, Dimbleby says, “in the most sententious language” by ministers in both houses of Parliament. Before long, however, the Chinese objected, and “in perhaps the most blatant act of perfidy in this shabby little history, the British soon reneged on even [this] modest commitment….”

This much was known in 1987, even though it was denied by Sir David Wilson, then the governor of Hong Kong. A very senior civil servant recently told me, “We knew at the time it was a fudge.” He was referring to a public opinion survey, sponsored by the Hong Kong government and conducted by mail in 1987, which purported to show how the public felt about Legislative Council elections in the following year. Of those who wrote in, 265,078 were in favor; 94,565 were opposed. “Yet, in a breathtaking sleight of hand,” Dimbleby charges, “the Hong Kong Survey Office…under instructions from Government House, and at the behest of the Foreign Office, contrived to suggest that the reverse was true.” This was done by counting individual “submissions” as one vote, while also lumping many signatures on a petition favoring elections into one “submission.” Thus the poll was turned on its head. Dimbleby characterizes this as “an effrontery usually associated only with totalitarian states and banana republics….”2

That was bad enough. What was not known before, and is alleged by Dimbleby, is that during visits to Peking between 1985 and 1987, high British officials assured the Chinese that Britain was not committed to the 1988 elections even though it was obvious, as they warned the Chinese, that such elections were overwhelmingly popular in Hong Kong. The officials who told the Chinese this included the Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe; Sir Percy Cradock, former ambassador to Peking and foreign policy adviser to Prime Ministers Thatcher and Major; Sir Robin McLaren, a senior Foreign Office Chinese expert who became ambassador to Peking in 1991; and Hong Kong’s governor at the time, Sir David Wilson. In 1987, Dimbleby writes, and he must be very sure of his sources to make such a damaging claim, high officials, including Sir Robin and Sir David, “volunteered” to the Chinese that the British side “had no preconceived views about the desirability of direct elections in 1988, or indeed at any time before the handover…. The seeds of a secret deal, nurtured by nods and winks, were starting to sprout.”

Most shamefully, according to Dimbleby, British officials “encouraged” Peking to urge the groups and organizations over which it had influence in Hong Kong to make “‘individual’ submissions” to the public opinion survey that would help give the impression that the public opposed holding elections in 1988.3 According to Dimbleby, such advice from the British left one of the main Chinese negotiators, Zhou Nan, with the impression “that the two sides had now reached a private understanding.” Dimbleby says, too, that “Patten believes…the Foreign Office…surrendered the chance to entrench democracy in Britain’s last significant colony,” and accuses it “of a fateful error of statesmanship.”4

Dimbleby’s conclusion, which must be Patten’s, is that when this disgrace becomes generally known “the bitterness in Hong Hong will fester and Britain’s reputation there will be indelibly stained by the mark of appeasement.” Sir Robin McLaren, who was ambassador to Peking until 1994, has rejected this charge: “I don’t see either that the question of whether or not democracy was pursued at the cost of all else should be the sole criterion in judging the performance of those British ministers and officials who were concerned with Hong Kong matters over the last 15 or 20 years.”5

Dimbleby also reveals how Patten was kept in the dark about other crucial and secret British-Chinese agreements that would have strictly limited the scope of the elections to be held in 1995. Patten proposed his reforms in ignorance of these agreements. His plan called for a fundamental change in the electoral system for the Legislative Council, none of whose sixty members would any longer be appointed by the governor. The reforms included lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen and giving almost all working people the right to vote for twenty out of sixty of the directly elected seats and to vote a second time for the thirty allotted to representatives of particular occupations. The remaining ten members of the council would be elected by an 800-member Election Committee—which itself would be elected by neighborhood ballot.

It was this proposed election of the Election Committee that caused Peking to revile the governor as a whore, a serpent, a man cursed for all time. For now a democratically chosen group would have a decisive influence over the elections. Having presented his proposals to the Legislative Council, in October 1992, Patten prepared to discuss them in Peking.

Two days before his flight one of his aides discovered a reference to some telegrams between Britain and China that apparently referred to previous dealings with the Chinese about Hong Kong elections. Frantic calls to London revealed that the telegrams had to do with “understandings” and “agreements” reached in a series of letters in 1990 between Foreign Secretary Hurd and China’s Foreign Minister Qian Qichen—on the very subject of an Election Committee for future LegCo elections. In this exchange of letters Hurd “agree[d] in principle” that the Election Committee for the 1995 Legislative Council should be “representative.” How it was to be representative was not said, and elections were not mentioned. “It must be assumed that for the Chinese,” Dimbleby writes, doubtless deriving this conclusion from Patten, “the ‘representative’ nature of the Election Committee could be achieved as effectively—and certainly more desirably—by a process of selection rather than election.”

Such a “selection,” involving one sixth of the LegCo seats, would be vital to Peking. It wanted the selection to be made by a “preparatory committee,” whose members were to be appointed by Peking; this would ensure that only pro-Chinese representatives sat on the Election Committee, which in turn could be counted on to elect ten similarly pro-China LegCo members.

Sir Percy Cradock, the Foreign Office high official who had helped work out the agreements, has said, “Both sides regarded them as of great significance.” Lord Howe says in Dimbleby’s television series that the Chinese had a right to feel aggrieved about Patten’s reform plan. They had understood there would be no election of the Election Committee. But in 1992 Patten had presented the election of the Election Committee as part of his political reforms for Hong Kong to the most senior officials in Whitehall. None told him he was headed for trouble. Dimbleby writes:

In all his briefings before he left London, no one had referred to any “past understandings.”…Not one Foreign Office official; not… Sir Percy Cradock; not Sir Robin McLaren, who had drafted the British documents; nor, indeed, the foreign secretary himself…. As a result Patten [and his speechwriters] had devised his reforms in ignorance…about an important component of the most controversial issue facing Hong Kong.

Patten told Dimbleby, “If I’d known about this it could all have been different.” He would have “couched his reforms in language which made it clear he was aware that there had been a set of significant, if indeterminate, negotiations, and that he was not insensitive to them.” Naturally, having heard about the agreements for the first time just before he left for Peking, Patten could not tell the Chinese, once negotiations started, that he had drafted his plan without knowing about previous agreements. Had he made this known, his colleagues in London would have looked at best careless and “the Chinese would [have been] handed a devastating propaganda coup.” As it was, by arguing for a different kind of Election Committee, Patten seemed to the Chinese to be cheating and reneging. In their negotiations with the governor the Chinese apparently raised the matter of the agreements with Hurd made in 1990. That this is so can be seen from the press conference in Peking which took place immediately after Patten’s departure for Hong Kong on October 23. Lu Ping, the senior State Council official with whom Patten had been negotiating, angrily accused him of breaking the 1990 agreements.

  1. 1

    The Sunday Times (London), Books, July 20, 1997.

  2. 2

    There is a straightforward account of the controversy over the survey in Frank Welsh, A History of Hong Kong (HarperCollins, revised paperback edition, 1997), pp. 518-523. The managing director of the company retained by the government to conduct the survey said afterward, “Given a free hand to ask a wider sample more direct questions, the questions on the survey were not the ones that would have been asked.” Welsh quotes Frank Ching, a leading Hong Kong journalist; he described how “the careful burial” of the poll, “giving in to Chinese pressure, then ascribing the cancellation of direct elections in 1988 to public opinion, had a big impact on the way the Hong Kong public from then on perceived both the British government and the Hong Kong administration.”

  3. 3

    In The Sunday Times (London) of July 6, 1997, Dimbleby says the Chinese took the suggestion and that the “individual” submissions “were to play a decisive part in distorting evidence.”

  4. 4

    The Sunday Times (London), July 6, 1997.

  5. 5

    South China Morning Post, July 12, 1997, p. 17. In letters to The Times of July 16, Sir Robin and Lord Hurd reject Dimbleby’s allegations but do not specifically deal with them.

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