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Don’t Say Goodbye


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 announced a plan in 1946 to constitute an elected Municipal Council. The Young Plan was never carried out, however. It was deemed to be “inopportune.” Governors before Young, and indeed after, were not all as keen on corporal punishment as Sir Reginald E. Stubbs (governor from 1919 to 1925), but most would have approved of his staunch ability to keep any strivings toward democracy “within the bounds of realism.”1 A former governor of Hong Kong (not mentioned by name in Patten’s book) told Patten that surely it wouldn’t matter much if the Chinese government threw one or two noisome democrats out of the legislature.

One other British governor had dabbled in democratic reforms. In 1855, Sir John Bowring, a radical utilitarian, who knew fourteen languages, including Chinese, proposed to make Hong Kong self-sufficient, with a partly elected legislature (Legislative Council, or LegCo in Hong Kong parlance). This plan, too, hit the rock of official opinions, most of which still have a familiar ring. The secretary of state for the colonies, H. Labouchere, rejected the idea because, in his view, “the Chinese have not yet acquired a respect for the main principles on which social order rests.”2 Here we have the main thing modern Chinese Communists have in common with certain British officials and Hong Kong businessmen: the notion that the natives “are not ready” for democracy, “have no interest in politics,” or “will create disorder” in the empire if given the right to vote. It was a view against which, to his enormous credit, Christopher Patten battled during his tenure in Hong Kong.

It is worth recalling that Sir John Bowring left Hong Kong under circumstances that were not entirely unlike Patten’s own tearful and rain-streaked farewell. Bowring’s reforms—giving Chinese more equitable legal and property rights, for example—had made him hugely unpopular with the British colonial elite. His intransigent attitude toward the Chinese government in Beijing helped to unleash an expensive little war. And when he left the colony in 1859, the Europeans ignored him, while Hong Kong Chinese showered him with gifts. Bowring was a political appointee, the first and only one until Patten came along.

Patten, unlike Bowring, spoke no Chinese, and was unschooled in the mysteries of the Chinese mind, but he had political convictions, which would deepen and harden in time. He believed that democratic politics were the best way to achieve positive economic and political results. And he believed this to be universally true, in Hong Kong as much as in Britain, in Asia as much as in Europe. Local democrats in Hong Kong, supported by the majority of Hong Kong people, agreed with Patten every time they had a chance to vote. Unfortunately, however, the Chinese government, backed by such commentators on international affairs as the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, did not. Neither did many businessmen, bankers, former governors, and Hong Kong tycoons, Chinese or European. And neither, for that matter, did many of Patten’s former colleagues in Westminster. Lord Young, for example, a businessman and cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, was convinced that the “vast majority” of Hong Kong people was “entirely unpolitical.” As a veteran of several business trips to Beijing, he also took the view that “if you allowed too much openness in China…it would go back to warlordism.”3

That is why Patten needed popular support: the elites were turning against him. His problem as the new governor in 1992 was how far to accommodate democratic demands in Hong Kong. Whatever he decided, it was bound to make him enemies. If he answered the demands for more democracy by expanding the franchise for the legislature as much as the democrats wanted, he would upset the Chinese government, and all those who wished to do business with it. And without the cooperation of China, the transition was bound to be bumpy. If, however, he appeased Beijing’s views on what was “within the bounds of realism,” he would act against his own principles, make enemies of his best allies, and ensure an abject and disgraceful last exit from the British Empire. Either way, Patten was in serious risk of wrecking his own career, as well as the future of six million Hong Kong people.

He chose the more honorable course, by trying (in his words) “to produce electoral arrangements within the existing parameters that would be regarded as fair.” The parameters were provided by the so-called Joint Declaration, signed in 1984 by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. The Joint Declaration laid down the principles of the future shape of Hong Kong. Mention of democracy was added to this document only at the last minute, as a kind of afterthought, a sentiment more than a principle. But it was sold to the hapless people in Hong Kong, and the British parliament, as a firm promise. The Legislative Council was to be constituted by elections. What kind of elections, elected by whom, in what numbers, by what system—none of this was mentioned. Sir Percy Cradock, Britain’s chief diplomatic negotiator, later said that the British government knew perfectly well that China had made no commitment to democracy in Hong Kong. Apart from anything else, smooth Sir Percy took great pride in his expertise on the ways and byways of the Chinese mind.

So Patten embarked on a series of reforms which were not radical, only partly democratic, but still better than anything Hong Kong had seen before. A third of the LegCo seats would be directly elected. The voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. Representatives of professional groups (functional constituencies) were to be chosen by individual members instead of corporations, and nine new groups of workers in industry and trade were added to broaden the franchise. The remaining legislators would be chosen by an Election Committee, whose members were elected instead of appointed. It was modest enough, but it went much too far for those, in Hong Kong and Beijing, who saw a dangerous rebel in every democrat. Patten himself remarks in his book how “extraordinarily moderate” such so-called radicals as Martin Lee, Q.C. Lau, or Emily Lau actually were. “I sometimes used to feel guilty,” he says now, “that their sheer decency and civilized restraint allowed us to get away with far too much.”

The restraint of the Hong Kong democrats was indeed remarkable given the fetid air of bad faith that had hung over Hong Kong ever since talks between Beijing and London began. What Sir Percy Cradock or his foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe saw as silky discretion could also be construed as an act of betrayal. The worst instance of this took place in 1987, three years after Hong Kong had been promised democratic reforms. The question was whether Hong Kong should have direct elections in 1988 or only sometime after 1990, when the Chinese government would have made its mind up on the nature and pace of Hong Kong’s “democracy.” The British insisted that the people of Hong Kong would have to decide themselves, through a “consultation process.” But in fact London and Beijing came to a secret understanding: if the 1988 elections were to be postponed, China would agree to future elections. The nature of these elections, as we now know and Sir Percy later confirmed, would not have to be democratic. In any case, the consultation process was manipulated to produce the desired result. Although any sane person would have concluded from the polls that most people were in favor of elections in 1988, the official conclusion was the opposite.

No wonder Beijing’s leaders took the pliability of the British mind for granted. That is why Patten’s very public last-minute stand for limited democracy in Hong Kong must have struck them as perverse. Not just perverse, but duplicitous. When Patten decided to democratize the Election Committee, he had no idea that the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, had already agreed in 1990, in private correspondence with his Chinese counterpart, that the Committee needed to be “representative” without being democratic. Apparently Patten had never been shown these letters. It was either a case of incompetence or skulduggery. We would like to know more. Patten alludes to it without having anything new to say. A pity.

  1. 1

    This characteristic noted in the Dictionary of National Biography is quoted by Jan Morris in Hong Kong (Vintage, 1997), p. 193.

  2. 2

    Quoted in G.B. Endacott, A History of Hong Kong (Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 99.

  3. 3

    In Jonathan Dimbleby, The Last Governor (Little Brown, 1997).

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