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.

The results of Patten’s last stand were unpleasant and perhaps predictable. The Legislative Council, elected under Patten’s new rules in 1995, was abolished as soon as the British left, and replaced by an appointed legislature filled with reliable yes men and women, many of whom had failed to get seats in the 1995 elections. This appointed LegCo swiftly undid legislation passed by the elected LegCo. In particular, workers’ rights were curbed to favor big business. And a complicated new electoral system was devised to make sure the democrats would always be outnumbered by the yes crowd. So much then for the “through train,” the agreement, that is, made before Patten’s arrival, that the sitting LegCo would remain after 1997.

Did Patten mess things up? His book is an attempt to convince us that he did not. Perhaps that is why much of it reads like a mixture of a campaign speech, an Oscar ceremony, and an annual report. Patten, in a sense, is still on the stump. There are too many sentences like this one: “By the time I left, the administration had notched up a record that would have provided a good basis for an election campaign in any Western democracy.” Patten’s political allies (and some potential reviewers of his book) are paid gushing little compliments. Yet he has a peculiarly oblique way of swiping at former enemies. The name of his enemy number one, Sir Percy Cradock, is never mentioned. Instead, we get snide references to the “senior foreign policy advisor,” and his band of Foreign Office “sinologists.” None of the British bankers, politicians, and businessmen whom Patten accuses of undermining him are mentioned by name, even though their dirty deeds are grimly recalled. This is especially odd, since the same stories appear in much more detail, and with names, in Jonathan Dimbleby’s admiring book, The Last Governor. And Dimbleby, a close friend, got most of his information from the governor himself. One of the disappointing things about Patten’s book is that it adds nothing to Dimbleby’s account.

To have written a dull and self-serving book does not mean, however, that Patten was wrong. His opponents had two lines of attack. One was that his confrontation with China was bad for business. This is disproved by the figures, which show that far from being damaged, business boomed during the Patten years, and crashed almost as soon as he left. Neither boom nor the following bust can be traced to Patten’s desk. But that is precisely the point: there is no obvious link between his policies and the successes or failures of business with China. Another argument, often used by Sir Percy, among others, is that Patten actually harmed the democratic cause of Hong Kong. If only Patten had not been so obstinate, if only he had been more discreet, more accommodating, more in tune with the Chinese mind…then, surely, China would have given Hong Kong more leeway. Patten dismisses this argument, I think rightly. As he says:

It assumed, after all, that Hong Kong would have been better off in the long term if we had connived with China to give it less democracy and fewer civil liberties in the short term. At least Hong Kong had experienced a free and fair election, knew what it was like, had self-confidently enjoyed its liberties. The world would be watching closely to see whether Hong Kong’s civil liberties were mangled; China had been put on its best behavior.

Yes, say his critics, but what about the “through train”? Did not Sir Percy and his team at least exact that promise from Beijing? And it was under Patten that the train ran off the rails. But here, too, I think Patten has the better argument. For Beijing made demands that would have derailed the democrats anyway. The Chinese officials simply preferred the British to do the dirty work. Patten:

They wanted us to agree to the establishment of a Selection Committee that would determine which of the legislators chosen in 1995 would be able to “ride the through-train” to 1999. In other words, they wanted to cherry-pick the legislature, to throw legislators they did not like off “the train” at the time of the transition. One did not need the gift of second sight to know who would have been sent packing.

They were sent packing. But after the legislative election this summer, rigged as it was to favor the “patriots,” corporate businessmen, and front parties for Beijing, all the democrats deposed in 1997 are now back on the train, as a vociferous minority. And Patten is at least entitled to say with some pride: “I am pleased that Britain narrowly avoided complicity in the dishonorable act of denying the citizens of free Hong Kong what they had been promised in 1984.” It is the simplest but perhaps the best reason to praise him.


If Patten had restricted his aims to writing a polemical defense of his record in Hong Kong, East and West would have made a slender but interesting document. If he had written a detailed memoir of his Hong Kong years, it would have been fascinating. But he wanted something grander than that; he wanted to give us his views on “the future of Asia,” tackle the question of “Asian values,” consider the nature of “power,” and restate the universal case for liberal politics. His ambition, to judge from his book, is to be the Tocqueville of contemporary Asia. These are big boots, and it is doubtful that Patten’s feet are quite big enough to fill them.

Before becoming governor of Hong Kong, Patten was a typical English politician of the “conservative left,” what Margaret Thatcher called “wet,” that is, moderate, liberal, bored with ideology, flexible, and fair-minded, in a languid, de haut en bas kind of way. His Toryism, Patten tells us, was “instinctive.” His hero was Rab Butler, often known as the best man never to become prime minister (perhaps, like Adlai Stevenson, because he was too clever). “My friends,” Patten writes, “were not without ideas themselves, but one of their ideas was that there was not a single Big Idea, except precisely that.” Patten’s experience in Hong Kong made him reexamine his political instincts. And he concluded that his taste for free market economics, the rule of law, and the universality of liberal ideas was more than just a matter of instinct. These were Big Ideas. And the propaganda for “Asian values,” putting loyalty to the state above individual liberty, and duty and obedience above democratic rights, was a challenge to the Big Ideas: Lee Kuan Yew versus Locke, Mahathir versus Adam Smith. Was the “Asian” combination of capitalist economics and authoritarian rule exceptional?

Even though “Asian values” are a herd of dead horses for the moment, this clash of ideas is worth probing. And where Patten has a personal story to tell, about his battles with Lee Kuan Yew, or his dealings with Chinese Communists and Western businessmen, who liked the combination of big money, weak unions, and authoritarian government, he is sharp and always interesting. But Patten is not Tocqueville. Tocqueville was never less than concrete; his ideas were always based on personal observation. Much of Patten’s reexamination of the liberal cause reads like a graduate essay in political science, or an extended Economist editorial. Not that his big picture is wrong, but it is too abstract, too general, and too glib to be the major contribution he wants it to be.

Consider the matter of elections: “There is more to a free society than occasional recourse to the ballot box. But a society with ballot boxes is far more likely to provide freedom for all its citizens than one without them, and societies that have elections but choke off civil liberties rapidly cease to be democratic at all.”

Or the link between political freedom and economic prosperity: “Toleration of dissent, genuinely representative government, the rule of law, and the free press bestow real comparative advantages in the race for quality growth.”

These views establish Patten as a bona fide bien-pensant. But is stating them in this plodding prose really the most effective way to combat anti-liberal ideas? For East Asian politics and economics—not just the vaunted “values”—do indeed challenge some of our most cherished liberal notions. The challenge for Patten, as a liberal, is to find a fresh way of addressing them. His approach, however, is to allude to different Asian countries and then to launch into another set of commonplaces.

One of Patten’s main themes is the relationship between politics and economics. He argues that quality growth, meaning the production of innovative products at competitive prices, comes as a result of democratic government and free market principles. He also says the words “industrial policy” make him “curl up inside.” And yet Patten admits that Asia’s economic success was not “a triumph of pure laissez-faire economics.” Indeed, Asian governments “have intervened in the economy and supported industry in ways that contradict the textbooks of such economics.” Such interventions are of course precisely what is meant by “industrial policy,” and in some cases, especially in Japan, they have been remarkably successful for quite a long time. Japan has had quality growth. It is easy to say now, after the latest crisis, that the “world’s biggest creditor nation is mired in financial problems and scandals…and its corporate sector [is] aborting every effort to recover from slump.” The trick is how to explain both the rise and (perhaps) temporary fall of the Japanese economy from a classical liberal point of view. This Patten fails to do.

Instead, we get more platitudes, about the virtues of low taxes, high savings, and small welfare budgets. What Patten doesn’t mention is that these alleged virtues are often born from corporate and bureaucratic practices which are inimical to free market principles. The high savings in Japan are the result of a rigged post office savings system and government-led social pressure. The lack of state welfare provisions is compensated for by overemployment in corporate enterprises, which seek to monopolize business and stifle mobility in the labor market. Patten thinks the West should learn the lessons of “small government” from the East, while the East must learn about “the right to esteem” of individual citizens. But what if esteem depends on guaranteed lifetime employment in big companies, or the survival of mom and pop stores? Both are under threat from the liberal, global free market which Patten praises. Perhaps there are liberal answers to these complexities, but they are not in Patten’s book.

One of the main selling points of the book is Patten’s row with Rupert Murdoch, who refused to publish it long after his company, HarperCollins, had contracted to do so. Murdoch thought its critical tone would harm his many business interests in China. Patten does indeed argue fiercely with businessmen who believe that authoritarianism is good for business. He heaps deserved and amusing ridicule on corporate bosses (like Murdoch) and trade delegations who are flattered in China with oily praise and grandiloquent promises, and come away thinking that big deals are in the bag. And Patten is right, of course, to say that “a marketplace free and fair to all and an economic system purged of or at least resistant to graft are incomparably more likely where there exists…the rule of law.”

But what about the argument that doing business in China, and other authoritarian countries, will result in greater prosperity, and hence in demands for democracy, and hence in the rule of law? This, after all, is the common sop to the businessman’s conscience—not to mention the conscience of Western governments that fudge human rights for the sake of big bucks. Patten is against the fudging, but appears to agree with the argument. Borrowing words from Zhao Ziyang, the former Chinese Communist Party leader, he states that rising living standards “will strengthen ‘the people’s sense of democracy.”‘ Is this necessarily so? It seems as doubtful as the idea that democratic politics is a necessary condition for economic growth. What about nineteenth-century Germany? Or indeed twentieth-century Hong Kong? Democracy did not make Hong Kong rich, nor did its people demand democratic rights because they had suddenly made money, any more than did the South Koreans, the Taiwanese, or the Thais. In the richest parts of Asia—Singapore, say—democrats find their greatest support among the relatively poor.

The least one can say is that prosperity does not harm the democratic cause, and on balance helps it. But the promise of business is still a bad reason for appeasing dictators. This is where Patten makes some points, which, though hardly new, are sensible. He is against mixing trade with human rights. Let the businessmen trade. And let democratic governments press authoritarian regimes on human rights. But don’t make one the condition of the other, for you will end up climbing down and making embarrassing excuses.

China—more than the former Soviet Union—poses a particularly difficult problem, since it combines political oppression with a veneer of free market economics. As a result, in Patten’s words, “the Chinese government believes that all it has to do is to crack the whip—threaten a blocked order here, a purchase from a rival there, a withdrawal of its goodwill, a cancellation of good relations until further notice—and we will all jump back into line. And by and large we actually do, especially the Europeans.” And he might have added, “especially that Australian- American Rupert Murdoch.”

Patten concedes that authoritarian regimes can score economic gains in the short term. He points to Mussolini’s Italy. It is in the longer term that lack of individual freedom, protectionism, and other forms of economic nationalism cause problems. The current Asian crisis may be a case in point. But then all economies, even the most unfettered, crash once in a while. Nevertheless, liberal democracy has one huge advantage over authoritarian capitalism or market-Leninism: government authority does not crack as soon as the economy goes down. Liberal democracies can weather almost any economic storm. Recent events in Asia have shown the political fragility of government systems whose legitimacy is almost entirely based on the continued promise of riches. But does the crash of such systems, when the promise is not fulfilled, result in successful transitions to democracy? It can do so. It sometimes does. But not always, and certainly not inevitably. It is a question that will soon have to be faced in China. One can only hope the Pattenistas will come out on top.

For there is nothing wrong with Patten’s sentiments and general statements. Most people want to be free to speak their minds, resent being the victims of arbitrary power, would welcome the rule of law, would benefit from free trade, and are best governed by their chosen representatives. He is right to say that a world of free and prosperous nations would be the safest possible world. I am a convinced Pattenista when it comes to the argument that there is nothing in Asian culture that should make Asians the exceptions to any of the above. And bravo to: “There are legitimate arguments about how far free societies should go in proselytizing their values…. But there is no case for moral relativism, for giving any credence to arguments that are intellectually shoddy, historically unfounded, and morally bankrupt.”

General statements and fine sentiments have their place, in political speeches for example. But given Christopher Patten’s unique experience one would have hoped for more than a political speech. Then again he won’t be remembered for his book. He will go down in history for what he did in office. And if one day a liberal democracy is finally established on the mainland of China, people might still remember that one of its foundation stones was laid by the last governor of Hong Kong.

This Issue

September 24, 1998