Policy Magazine: Patten’s ‘Hong Kong Diaries’: An Engaging Stroll Through the Handover Snake Pit
By Chris Patten
Penguin Random House/October 2022
Reviewed by Colin Robertson
September 14, 2022
It would be easy to introduce this review of Chris Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries by observing that the author had a good 20th century. But Patten — son of an Irish Catholic jazz drummer raised in west London who went on to Oxford’s Balliol College from whence he entered politics by working for New York Mayor John Lindsay before becoming the Tory MP for Bath, a cabinet minister, then the chairman of the UK Conservative Party — has also had a pretty good 21st century. He has been chancellor of Oxford since 2003 and Lord Patten of Barnes since 2005. He fits comfortably into the pantheon of Britain’s ‘great and good’.
Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries cover his five years (1992-97) as the 28th and last British governor of Hong Kong, an assignment that was both enthralling and notoriously thankless under the circumstances. Insightful and intelligent, Patten’s Hong Kong diaries are the jottings of high life, low life, and family life, including the antics of their two Norfolk terriers, Whisky and Soda. Mostly, they are the story of his efforts to entrench Hong Kong with basic liberties and a more representative government ahead of the 1997 handover to China agreed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that ostensibly gave the former British colony 50 years of limited autonomy under the principle ‘One Country, Two Systems’. The subsequent Basic Law of 1990 guaranteed fundamental freedoms and human rights.
By his own admission, Patten’s efforts for the “good and brave people” of Hong Kong did not succeed. He would write (May 16, 1997), just weeks before the handover: “We have let them and others down. We should have delivered more explicitly what was promised in the Joint Declaration and given greater protection for the values which the great majority of Hong Kong Chinese citizens believe in and want to survive.”
For Hong Kong, once described by the writer Han Suyin as a city that “works splendidly – on borrowed time in a borrowed place,” the clock ran out in June 2020, nearly 30 years prematurely, with China’s brutal eradication of democracy through its Hong Kong national security law.
Patten’s failure to avert catastrophe for Hong Kong ahead of his return to England in 1997 was not for want of trying. The deal was already done through the Joint Declaration and Basic Law and Patten could really only tinker, albeit valiantly, at the edges. In that sense, the diaries are a five-year chronicle of intrigue and obfuscation, of frustrations and disappointments, a case study in the challenges of negotiating with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Diplomats and leaders in the West can learn lessons from all of it.
The title of Patten’s final chapter, written earlier this year, says it all: “The Destruction of Hong Kong: What Happened After 1997”. As Patten observes, the CCP never really understood the difference between “rule of law and rule by law” nor that the “law must serve the people, not the people the law.”
Patten writes that Nobel laureate-economist Milton Friedman, who spent years lauding the democratic Hong Kong as an example of a successful free-market experiment, thought the idea of a free market economy under the rule of law shifting to “living happily within the control and jurisdiction of a communist totalitarian state was preposterous. It was an oxymoronic contradiction on stilts.” For many in the CCP, who still believe that the success of Hong Kong resulted from “piggybacking on China’s own economic resurgence”, the crackdown was also about getting even with a place Deng Xiaoping once described as the “pimple on the arse of China.”
Like Taiwan, Hong Kong stood as a success story, its citizens and residents enjoying more liberty and more prosperity than people living on the mainland under the CCP. Patten concludes: “As we know from what has happened in Hong Kong, we cannot take the survival of those values for granted. Hong Kong’s fight for freedom, for individual liberty and decency, is our fight as well.”
For many in the CCP, who still believe that the success of Hong Kong resulted from ‘piggybacking on China’s own economic resurgence’, the crackdown was also about getting even with a place Deng Xiaoping once described as the ‘pimple on the arse of China’.
The British had governed the colony since 1841 when, after the first Opium War, the island of Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity by the Qing dynasty. Subsequent treaties (1898) added a ninety-nine-year lease on Kowloon, the New Territories and the adjacent islands, but not Hong Kong.
In 1984, Margaret Thatcher — on advice from Henry Kissinger who, as he writes in his own recent book, Leadership, was acting as private-citizen backchannel between London and Beijing — agreed to include Hong Kong on expiry of that lease based on the former US Secretary of State’s urging that, if she didn’t, China would take the island by force.
It was Patten’s challenge, working with Hong Kong’s Executive and Legislative Councils and supported by the colony’s civil service, to codify into law the guaranteed ‘separate system’ for Hong Kong. Patten was determined to instill human rights and representative government. Therein lay the rub.
Patten early on identified the conflicting, often countervailing, pressures in what he would later characterize (September 2, 1996) as a “snake pit”.
It was hard slogging. Patten continually felt undermined by the British Foreign Office, especially the “clever, conceited, acerbic” Sir Percy Craddock, a “vain old thing” who “puts my back up.” A sinologist, Craddock was chargé d’affaires in the British embassy in Beijing when it was invaded during the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Craddock later served as UK Ambassador to Beijing and played a key role in negotiating the Joint Declaration. Craddock was not alone, Patten writes, and was backed by, among others, former prime ministers Jim Callaghan and Ted Heath.
Beijing, whose pre-millennial antipathy toward Hong Kong democracy would be amplified and contextualized by its anti-democracy activities, investments and coercions globally over the first two decades of this century, also relied on the Hong Kong taipans, British and Chinese, who saw their future with the mainland. They wanted nothing that would annoy Beijing, while expecting the “continuing certainty of the rule of law” and “the conditions of stability for an effective market economy”. Many in the business elite had foreign passports in their back pockets. After Tiananmen Square (1989), those who didn’t soon got one.
Then there were those in Britain and abroad who, as Patten observed (April 17-21, 1993), “would like to feel a warm glow of satisfaction that we are doing the decent thing by Hong Kongers, but they feel somewhat constrained in their enthusiasm by dislike for the gerontocracy in Beijing, which doesn’t give much of a damn about concepts like human rights.”
As a skilled politician, Patten was very much attuned to what was taking place in Britain and within the Conservative Party. Patten had been minister for, at various points, Northern Ireland, Education, Environment and Overseas Development. He also chaired the 1992 Tory election campaign that won John Major his unexpected post-Thatcher majority. Had he not lost his own seat, he would have been in line for a major cabinet post. As well as Hong Kong, Patten was offered a safe return to the House or an appointment to the Lords. Throughout his time in Hong Kong, these opportunities would continue to beckon.
Canada comes out well in the diaries. In the wake of Tiananmen Square, when the lineups for Canadian emigration stretched several blocks around Exchange Square, Canada prioritized practical help in the entrenchment of representative government. Patten would write of his final conversation (July 1, 1994) with Canada’s senior representative, Commissioner John Higginbotham, before Higginbotham was re-assigned to Washington:
“He believes that we have been successful in getting Hong Kong accustomed to the software of a free, open and plural society, that policy previously was a matter of just keeping our fingers crossed about the Joint Declaration and the Chinese commitment to it. We weren’t telling people the truth or making them face up to the reality that they would have to want Hong Kong to succeed if it were to have any chance of doing so after the handover. He thinks that this was in many ways a dreadful hoax. At least we have given Hong Kong citizens the chance to make some of their own decisions about the future. I wish this man had been working in our own foreign service for the last 20 years.”
Tiananmen Square had a profound effect on the Hong Kong people. Overnight, they realized that the politics they had eschewed – previously less than a third turned out in local elections – mattered. Over a million in the then 6.4 million colony marched through the streets. Institutions we assume – a free press, independent judiciary, an honest and non-political civil service and police force, representative government – suddenly became meaningful.
The response of Hong Kong people convinced me that the fundamental divide is not right vs left but rather open vs closed systems. And never take liberty for granted. In supporting the nascent democracy, we Canadian diplomats faced the same conflicting pressures at home, in Hong Kong, and in Beijing that Patten describes.
Posted as Consul to Hong Kong (1987-92), I was deeply involved in the Canadian efforts to support autonomy for Hong Kong. We brought out the last commissioner of the Northwest Territories to help explain the transition to self-government. Our Chief Electoral Officer explained the mechanics of a free, fair and efficient election. We signed agreements on air services and did an ad hoc exchange of civil servants. We accepted Vietnamese refugees who had been languishing in Hong Kong camps. In the years after Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong became our principal source of new migrants, with annual numbers rising from just over1,000 to a peak of 44,000 in 1994. Between 1984 and 1997, 335,646 Hong Kongers moved to Canada, making us home to one of the largest Hong Kong diasporas.
Our efforts had the full backing of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Patten describes Mulroney as “extrovertly on our side”. To underline Canada’s commitment, Mulroney dispatched ministers to visit Hong Kong. He and Mila came and dedicated a totem pole in Kowloon Park. Of succeeding Canadian governments, Patten would write (January 10, 1995) that they have “a crush at the moment on China. They see – here we go again – treasures beyond human craving just over the horizon.”
If the Trudeau government would act on its promised “Canadian centre to better support democracy and good governance around the world”, what we did for Hong Kong could be a model for future initiatives.
Hong Kong is still our best entrée into the Indo-Pacific. There are still at least 300,000 Canadians living there. The forthcoming Indo-Pacific strategy will be the poorer if standing up for Hong Kong and the Canadian community there does not figure prominently in a larger China policy that also includes support for Taiwan and defence of human rights.
Perhaps the most poignant diary entry (Friday, September 20, 1996) is Patten recounting a conversation with a patient during a visit to Castle Peak psychiatric hospital, whose improvement the Pattens made a personal project.
‘Excuse me, Governor. Would you claim that Britain is the oldest democracy in the world?’ he asked.
‘One could certainly claim that,’ I replied.
‘And would you also agree that China is the last great communist totalitarian state in the world?’
‘Some people might say that,’ I responded diplomatically.
‘Well could you tell me, Governor,’ he went on, ‘why your democracy is handing Hong Kong, a fine and free city, over to a communist society without ever having consulted the people who live here about what they want?”
Here was the sanest man in Hong Kong locked up in a hospital for the mentally ill. So, we are rebuilding it!
These diaries complement Patten’s earlier book East and West: The Last Governor of Hong Kong on Power, Freedom and the Future (1998). At 580 pages, the diaries are a brick, but Patten’s breezy style and trenchant commentary make them an easy read. I recommend the audio version – 25 hours – that Patten reads himself, providing a much better sense of people, places and events. I would pop in the earbuds at bedtime and let Patten’s mellifluous voice put me to sleep.
Variously described by CCP-backed media as a “sinner for a thousand years, prostitute, triple violator”, Patten was named by Queen Elizabeth in 1998 to the 65-member Order of the Companions of Honour. The Order also includes Canadians John de Chastelain, Margaret MacMillan and Margaret Atwood. Patten continues to speak out and to write a regular column for Project Syndicate.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, students returning to their classrooms have got new history books. They claim that Hong Kong was never a British colony because Britain was never the sovereign power and that the protests of 2019 were driven by ‘external forces’.
Historical revisionism is not only nothing new in totalitarian regimes, it’s a defining ingredient. When Joseph Stalin rewrote history in the 1930s, the Soviets joked that “The past changes so often you don’t know what’s going to happen yesterday.”
As Patten writes, you can learn a lot about how China would like to deal with the rest of the world by looking at how Beijing has dealt with Hong Kong.
Beijing seems confident that the rest of the world will turn a blind eye to its disregard for the rule of law and freedom of expression. For a Chinese leadership emboldened by the power of 21st-century propaganda — especially anti-democracy propaganda generated by corrupted domestic actors in key democracies — it is only the weak that need abide by democratic norms being systematically eroded from within, as President Joe Biden pointed warned in his recent Philadelphia speech. Beijing is confident that, sooner rather than later, China will be setting the norms. Which makes Chris Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries a warning for the rest of the world.