Chris Patten Interview (1999): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Ideas, Political Leadership, and the Lessons of Hong Kong: Conversation with Christopher Patten, the last Governor-General of Hong Kong: 4/8/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Mr. Patten, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

In reading your very impressive book, I jotted down a job description for someone who is the last governor of Hong Kong. It reads, "Experienced politician wanted for impossible position with high visibility. Should possess extraordinary political skills necessary for running a major international city. Highly developed understanding of international diplomacy is necessary. Appreciation of Western values highly recommended, and an understanding of the history of capitalism and liberal democracy. Must not count on the support of employer. Sensitivity to back-biting and stabs in the back not recommended. Five year tenure. No successor envisioned." Is that a fair description?

[Laughing] I think it's pretty fair. It wasn't, of course, entirely how things would have seemed at the time because while there were some suggestions that a politician should be appointed to the job in the run-up to the hand-over, it would have probably gone, as before, to a diplomat. In that case, the job description would have run rather differently. Knowledge of Mandarin would have been a requirement, even though not many people in Hong Kong speak Mandarin. Being steeped in Chinese negotiating tactics would have been regarded as an important asset, though I rather question just how important that is. But we can perhaps come back to that.

What was your mandate when you took that position?

My mandate was, in essence, to ensure that the Joint Declaration was honored as well as we could manage, that what Hong Kong had been promised in the Joint Declaration was delivered, and that we got through to 1997 in one piece with the porcelain still on the dresser. Now, I say it in that rather simple way because not very much more than that was said to me. I had a lot of intensive briefings before I went out to Hong Kong, but I had to really make it up as I went along, very largely. I was told that it was all clear in the Joint Declaration and that was that. Some people implied by that, that policy was already set on the rails, that all one had to do was sit there in the first class carriage and get through to 1997. One retired diplomat and retired politician counseled me against going to Hong Kong on the grounds that it would be incredibly boring because there was nothing to do. It showed me how much he actually knew about Hong Kong and China. Other people pointed out that while, of course, the broad lines of policy were set down, a huge number of problems had been pushed to one side or pushed ahead into some indefinite future on the grounds that the time wasn't quite right for solving them.

In my judgment, there are two things very often said by diplomats and in diplomatic circles that are almost always wrong. The first is that the time isn't ripe to decide something. That is always said of difficult problems. What you tend to discover is that the time is even less ripe when you get around to solving them. In Hong Kong, the best example of that was that there had been no agreement on the electoral arrangements for the last round of elections before 1997. There was also on the back burner the whole question about how Hong Kong's laws could be brought into line with the international covenants as had been promised. The second thing, which Harold Nicholson points out about diplomacy, which in my judgement is also always going to lead to trouble, is the tendency of some diplomats, not all, not the better ones, not the great ones like Kennan, but the tendency of some diplomats to think that if you fudge things today, you can somehow get away with it tomorrow or next week. Fudge always gets up and smacks you in the face, like a custard pie. And there was a lot of fudge around as far as our position with China was concerned. So even though the Joint Declaration was supposed to be absolutely clear, this treaty between Britain and China about what I could do and what we could do before 1997, there was a lot of , to put it mildly, loose ends.

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