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

Page 2 of 6

Political Leadership

These two views of diplomacy were very different than the conception of political leadership that you brought to the table. Tell us a little about that.

Well, I thought that it was very important, and this has always been my view about political leadership, to be absolutely clear what you want to achieve and to make sure that people out there know what you want to achieve. I don't want to overdo the point, but I think the great political leaders have a pretty clear and simple story line. Part of their greatness is convincing the public that it is relevant to the public's aspirations and concerns. It's important to get it over to the public. It's very different from being driven by focus groups day by day, because it springs from a political leader's own convictions, principles, and values. But the ability to articulate what you are doing, to be clear about it, and to stick to it is, I think, the essence of political leadership.

I thought it was particularly important in Hong Kong because of the uncertainties, because of the way that uncertainty was sapping confidence. One of the things I wanted to say to people in Hong Kong was, "Look, these things that you'd been promised in the Joint Declaration -- if you are sufficiently concerned about them, if you stand up for them self-confidently, we may not be able to deliver everything, but there is more likelihood of a free society and civil society actually surviving here." I saw an important part of my job as being, as it were, a bully pulpit for the liberties, the values, that go with civil society as we understand it.

There was another aspect of the job which touched on that as well. I actually spent most of my time being mayor of Hong Kong, running one of the greatest cities in the world, without -- which, one has to admit, is a failure in our system -- without all the checks and balances which should be applied through representative government to a chief executive in those circumstances. So I had a lot of real, raw power. I could make things happen. I could pull levers and there would be results. What I wanted therefore to do, in an administrative as well as a political and philosophical way, was to set out at the beginning of my five years exactly what I wanted to do as the mayor with welfare programs, with housing, with education and so on. So again, people would have a clear sense of direction and would be able to measure what we achieve each year against the targets we set ourselves.

So I arrived in the job with that sense that leadership in Hong Kong should have clear goals, that they should be clearly articulated to people, and that one should stick to them and not allow oneself to be pushed off course.

At the highest level of mission, so to speak, you say it pretty clearly in your book, "I was not prepared to do China's dirty work by curtailing Hong Kong's freedom and democratic development."

Yes, that's exactly, I think, what China would have liked me to do, would have liked the British governor to do. What they wanted was to be able to take over in 1997, and hand on heart say, "Well, if this rigged election system was good enough for the British, why isn't good enough for us?" I think that in politics, very often, success is avoiding calamity. And I could have spent my five years, if I'd played things as some of my critics would have liked, locked into endless conflict with the democrats and with the people of Hong Kong. We could have spent five years with a good deal of political instability in the run-up to 1997. I think that would have been the consequence of doing what China wanted, of rewriting or reinterpreting the promises that had been made to people in Hong Kong. I think that shows a rather truncated political vision, for people to not comprehend the consequences of a policy of being China's doormat for five years in Hong Kong. I think it's very short-sighted of people not to understand exactly what that would have meant -- not just for Britain's international reputation, not just for how Hong Kong would have been perceived in British domestic terms, but also and most importantly, for how governable Hong Kong would have been in those circumstances. As it was, we had a remarkably smooth passage in Hong Kong. We are lucky as well that the regional economy didn't produce the sort of disjunctures that have happened since then in Hong Kong.

Did your insight in this regard come from the fact that you had been in the vortex of politics? Did that background distinguish you from somebody who had come out of the foreign service?

I suspect that, inevitably, the fact that I was a democratic politician who had suffered from some of the, to use the cliché, "slings and arrows" of politics, marked my attitudes and marked my tenure. I did bring a different set of assumptions to the job. But one of the other assumptions which I don't think is necessarily just because I am a politician, which has been more and more strengthened by both my experience as governor and what I have seen more generally in Asia is this:

In my experience, the theory that we've all been brought up to believe in, in liberal democracies, actually turns out to work in practice, too. One of my favorite stories is about Garret Fitzgerald, the former Irish Prime Minister and a great Irish intellectual who was once faced with a difficult policy choice and said, "Well, I can see that it works in practice, but does it work in theory?" What one was able to see in Hong Kong was that the theory actually worked in practice. We'd been brought up with a set of assumptions about what constituted a stable, prosperous, decent society. Philosophers like de Toqueville, social and economic historians like Schumpeter and Bloc, constitutional historians like McLean and Stubbs. We believed in a set of institutional arrangements: rule of law, representative government, freedom of speech, independent courts, clean police, free trade, international cooperation, and so on and so on. The fact of the matter is that societies which operate within that sort of framework, societies which apply those principles, are more successful, are more decent, and do work better. I couldn't understand those people who seem to think that we should believe that everywhere else, but not in Hong Kong or not in Asia.

You state that very well also in your book. You say, "In Hong Kong, rough and tumble though my experiences sometimes were, I arrived, as T.S. Eliot wrote, 'where I had started and perhaps knew the place for the first time.'"

What I meant by that is if you go into politics in an open society, in a pluralist democracy, you don't ever really have to think through why it is that you're a democrat, why it is -- with all its jet stream of values and principles that should go with it -- the best way of organizing a community, or organizing society. I found myself, not in the least because of the criticisms to which I was subjected in Hong Kong, having to actually think through some of those arguments from my own experience. That was a salutary thing to happen to somebody who had arrived in midlife, as it were, without having to think things through in that way.

In going back home and seeing it again, is there a reference there to your education? In other words, where had you done all this reading the first time around?

All the reading --

I suppose I've always carried what is regarded as a bit of unnecessary baggage in Britain. I've always carried the charge that I am an intellectual in politics. I'm not quite sure how fair that is, because I prefer, on the whole, acting to thinking about things. I have always read a lot. I was educated as a historian. I read a lot of history at school and at university, and I've gone on reading and reading quite widely. One of my ministerial bosses, when I was a junior minister, was the very considerable market politician Keith Joseph, who was partly responsible for some of Margaret Thatcher's intellectual commitment to markets. I remember when I went to work for Keith Joseph, he said to me, "Look, what I'd like to do, I'll give you a list of the books that have most affected me, and you give me a list of the books that have most affected you." Now some people regarded that as sort of absurd, sort of a silly thing for a grown up politician to do. I thought there was a certain charm and sense about it. We discovered, I think to Keith's surprise, a number of things that overlapped.

Yes, it is true that I've always read around subjects. The jobs that have most interested me, I've found that I've become almost obsessively interested in the literature about them. Having been a junior minister in Ireland years ago triggered a great interest in Irish literature and Irish history. My job in Hong Kong not only sent me back to read Popper again, and some of my favorite political philosophers -- de Toqueville-- but also got me reading the great historians of China like Jonathon Spence with great enthusiasm.

We'll pursue that in a minute, because I think what is quite interesting about your book and your experience is the way you come back to your values and see their articulation as very important as we approach China and the East in the future.

Next page: Hong Kong

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California