The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong
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.
Why wasn’t the governor told of Hurd’s dealings with the Chinese? Douglas Hurd insisted six years later that despite the letters he had written, “I never supposed my hands or my successor’s hands were tied by what happened [in 1990].” But in effect he apologized for not telling Patten about the agreements he had endorsed in 1990. “Chris was not told of them, and I was not reminded of them…. I mean, he was a newcomer to it. They should have told him of that background, and they should have reminded me….”
Sir Percy, who discussed Patten’s plans with him before he left for Hong Kong and did not tell him of the 1990 agreement, says he did not specifically mention the matter because it was “inconceivable that a governor going out to Hong Kong would not have had all these documents in front of him.”
The Peking visit was a disaster. Ambassador McLaren was at Patten’s side throughout the negotiations. Dimbleby does not say whether he mentioned the 1990 agreements to the governor, although it is clear the Chinese did so. While Dimbleby was staying in the British embassy during the talks, Sir Robin told him (as can be seen in the television series) that he thought the Chinese would entirely repudiate the Patten plan and appoint their own LegCo as soon as they took power in 1997—which is what happened. But he also said nothing to Dimbleby about the 1990 agreements. Sir Robin officially stated his prediction in a telegram to London, which Patten saw, that Patten’s plan would be repudiated. In this telegram, too, there was apparently no reference to the agreements. The McLaren view, “which was widely shared by his senior colleagues in the Foreign Office,” writes Dimbleby, was that the Patten plan “had been ill judged and that now, before it was too late, he should step back from the democratic brink….”
This approach, according to Patten and his supporters, can be traced back to Sir Percy, who was seen by the governor as the deus ex machina of the Foreign Office, an opponent who waged relentless war on Patten, directly, through letters to the press, articles, and radio and television interviews, and indirectly, through the equally relentless sniping by his many allies still in government.6 Sir Percy’s view to this day, expressed in a July 7 letter to The Times, is that
The criticism of Chris Patten is not because he helped democracy in the colony, but because he harmed it. By making unilateral electoral changes in disregard of repeated and precise Chinese warnings, he ensured that Hong Kong passed under Chinese rule with less democracy and less protection than would have otherwise been the case.
The allegation that the election survey of 1987 was rigged in collusion with the Chinese and that the 1990 agreements were kept secret from Patten are the biggest shocks in Dimbleby’s book. But we learn, too, that in 1994, three years before the handover, Prime Minister John Major, who Patten always invoked as his staunchest supporter in his struggles with Peking, made Patten an “astonishing” offer: “He could become leader of the Lords and foreign secretary [replacing Douglas Hurd], as well as taking over the vacant role of deputy prime minister. Apart from Major himself, Patten would become the most powerful man in the Cabinet.” The governor declined.
It can be argued Patten should have said yes. As foreign secretary he could have negotiated with the Chinese at the highest level on the future of Hong Kong, instead of being spurned by them, as he was when governor, as a “whore” and a “serpent.” His views on protecting Hong Kong’s political freedoms would have carried much greater weight in Washington. And he could have arranged the appointment of a successor, perhaps a Hong Kong Chinese like his respected chief secretary Anson Chan (now uneasily serving in the same post for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa) whom Peking could not so readily ignore. But this is not how Patten saw the prime minister’s offer. “In an exceptionally demanding period,” Dimbleby writes, “the prime minister had unwittingly left Patten with the impression that Britain’s mission in Hong Kong somehow mattered less in 10 Downing Street than the future of his [Major’s] troubled administration at Westminster. For a while Patten brooded on this: it did nothing to cheer him up.”
Here as elsewhere Dimbleby makes assertions about highly secret diplomatic and political events. He could have learned about them only from Patten, who must have permitted Dimbleby to be made aware of state documents. In an additional interview published only days after he left Hong Kong, Patten told Dimbleby the details of how the 1987 opinion poll had been rigged. He said that he understood the extent of the bad behavior of senior officials only when his term as governor had almost ended, and even then he had not seen all the documents because “quite a few…seem to have slipped back to London.”7 What Patten disclosed to Dimbleby on this and other occasions raises the question of whether the governor and his staff violated Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
Such possible legal violations aside, the question of evidence is important in considering the veracity of the book. It blackens the reputations of senior officials, now retired, who stand accused by Dimbleby—and by Chris Patten—of virtually betraying the governor and, years before his arrival in Hong Kong in 1992, of conniving with Peking and the colony’s rich to thwart the hopes of Hong Kong’s people for modest democracy. Those officials, Dimbleby writes,
will in due course provide their own explanation for the “betrayal” of which they stand accused by liberal opinion in Hong Kong…. The former foreign secretary and the officials then under his authority will find themselves open to the charge that the consultation exercise [i.e., the rigged survey] over which they presided was indeed the sham their detractors have alleged it to have been been. They will be accused variously of arrogance, cynicism and dishonourable conduct.
Sir Robin and Lord Hurd have already written to The Times denying this charge, and Sir Geoffrey has said in a review of the book in The Sunday Times that the poll of 1987 was “a genuine attempt to measure public opinion…with the opinions sharply divided….”8 Sir Geoffrey says, moreover, that it is Patten who betrays others, traducing his colleagues with his unsubstantiated and hasty accusations. Some suggest that he has dashed whatever hopes he may have had of resuming a political career within the shattered Tory Party. In any event, one may ask why Patten allowed Dimbleby “easy access” and agreed to the publication of this book, and the showing of the television series, only days after he had pulled away from Hong Kong—with Dimbleby on board—on the royal yacht Britannia.
The governor must have been very angry. Indeed, as Dimbleby says, he had contempt for “his own predecessors in Government House, the Foreign Office and the British Cabinet.” He remarked to Dimbleby, “You know, I dare say there are some who, if China was saying, ‘Well, our price is slaughter of the first-born,’ who would say, ‘Well, maybe it is not unreasonable in the circumstances. You know, you have to allow for different cultural traditions.’ I mean, do we ever have a bottom line?”
Clearly Patten feels he was betrayed by practically everyone in high places. During his time in Hong Kong he observed many times that there was “not the thickness of a piece of paper” between himself and Major and Hurd on the political reforms in Hong Kong which had caused the officials in Peking to call the governor of Hong Kong vulgar names. Yet even the prime minister and the foreign secretary, who tried to tempt him back to Britain to help save the Conservative Party, proved not to be dependable allies.
There are many smaller betrayals along the way. Ex-Prime Minister James Callaghan and other grandees from both parties, such as Michael Heseltine, came to stay with Patten and rebuked him for quarreling with China, with whom, they insisted, Britain had bright trade prospects. So did Tory ex-ministers, now company directors striking deals with China.9 Stick to past agreements between Britain and China, he was counseled, especially the ones reached in 1984 which envisaged a slow and deliberate progress toward elections for the Legislative Council over fifteen to twenty years. He learned that Foreign Office officials were leaking damaging evaluations of him to the press. When Robin Cook, then the shadow foreign secretary, now the real one, came to Hong Kong last year, he said on several occasions that Patten had provoked the difficulty with China and that had Labour been in power things might have been different.10
What seems to me the main problem with The Last Governor is that Dimbleby has written what amounts to Patten’s memoir. Although Dimbleby says that his own millions of words and hundreds of hours of tapes “are to be lodged” at Hong Kong University, I would be surprised if in them he describes official documents he has actually seen or has direct knowledge of. And even much of the hearsay in this book is unsubstantiated. During one hectic night in 1994, for example, the governor was waiting to hear if Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed his political reforms, the ones which provoked a five-year crisis with Peking. The result hung on one or two votes. That night in Government House, in the thick of the frantic vote-estimating and damning of perceived weaklings and turncoats, the contents of telephone calls from Peking to its allies in the Council were being discussed by Patten while Dimbleby was in the room. Reading his account, we wonder if we are getting secondhand accounts of telephone intercepts.
Dimbleby’s book denounces men with hitherto good reputations, but his most damning allegations are just that: allegations. If he wants to sustain his case he should now produce what documentation he can. But the real responsibility to provide evidence is Patten’s. He is currently taking a six-month break in France, where he is writing a book on Asia. He may have to delay it. He will be called on by those he condemns so severely to prove his allegations. Percy Cradock is already demanding a public enquiry with full documentation.
News of this civil war within the Whitehall elite will please Peking, where Britain is known traditionally as “the two-headed snake.” Accurately accused in the West and within China of being intensely factional and even fratricidal, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party who read this book will note the cynicism, deceit, and backstabbing described by Patten and denied by those he accuses.
It is still too early to tell if Patten was right in emphasizing that he supported Hong Kong’s desire for democracy and wanted, in 1997, to leave behind a population better able to stand up for themselves. During his five years the governor responded to Hong Kong’s demands for democracy. These were plain in the opinion poll of 1987 which the British falsified. The demands emerged again when hundreds of thousands marched through the streets after Tiananmen, and yet again when Hong Kong people voted in great majorities for democrats in the 1991 and 1995 elections for LegCo. Right up to the handover, in most opinion polls and interviews, most people in Hong Kong favored increased democracy; they significantly preferred Patten’s policies to the contrary ones of his successor Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive installed by Peking. Dimbleby puts it well when he says,
…Hong Kong’s capitalists and Beijing’s communists formed a potent coalition against the kind of freedom and democracy for which the majority of Hong Kong’s citizens had already declared their enthusiasm.
But what are Hong Kong’s people who watch Dimbleby’s television series or read his book to think of what he tells them? That Patten was sincere and wished them well is obvious from this account and from his record. But he claimed to have strong support in Britain and it seems clear he did not. Even the governor’s most powerful champions, the prime minister and the foreign secretary, were prepared to bring him home for their domestic political purposes and have him run out on the people of Hong Kong, whom he had promised he would stay. His old cabinet colleagues conspired against against him, as did his enemies in the Foreign and Home Offices. Why didn’t the prime minister order a stop to the sniping?
The new Chinese sovereign has swept away the fully elected Legislative Council, which was Patten’s central political reform, and replaced it with an appointed one. When the next LegCo election occurs, in the spring of 1998, changes in the electoral laws, already proposed by the new government, will ensure that democrats no longer make up the largest bloc. Patten’s enemies here and in London maintain that had he not insisted on his reforms and had he allowed elections in 1995 along the lines agreed to by Britain and China in 1984, there would still be a substantial number of democrats in LegCo and relations between London and Peking would be amicable. This is hard to square with China’s policies over the years.
Dimbleby says of Patten that “future generations in Hong Kong, and even in China, will look back on his struggle on their behalf with gratitude.” My own five years in Hong Kong coincided with the governor’s, and I am inclined to agree. In a particularly telling comment, Ian Buruma has pointed out that in Hong Kong although “the official patriots have the money and the guns…in the long run, the love of liberty may yet turn out to be stronger.”11 Dimbleby says Chris Patten was on “the ‘right’ side of history,” that he recognized and encouraged Hong Kong’s love of liberty, and that is why in future its people will thank him. It is now Dimbleby’s responsibility—and far more Patten’s—to show us the evidence which alone can convince us that this is true.
—August 28, 1997
The Sunday Times (London), Books, July 20, 1997. ↩
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.” ↩
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.” ↩
The Sunday Times (London), July 6, 1997. ↩
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. ↩
Patten told Dimbleby he “learned to worry less about the ammunition which is going to be fired at you from the other side than the ammunition which comes zinging at you from behind your back,” a view which Sir Percy has also expressed from time to time. ↩
The Sunday Times (London), July 6, 1997. ↩
The Sunday Times (London), Books, July 20, 1997. ↩
In The Sunday Times of July 20, 1997, Sir Geoffrey Howe, named as one such self-interested ex-official, describes the charge in his case as libelous, noting that he has never been a director of the British General Electric Corporation, as Dimbleby states. ↩
Nowadays Cook speaks much more forcefully of a “moral” foreign policy, emphasizing the defense of human rights everywhere, than Major or Patten did. When Tony Blair was in Hong Kong for the handover there was no evidence that in his brief meeting with President Jiang Zemin he repudiated Patten’s policies. ↩