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 3 of 6

Hong Kong

Describe the Hong Kong you found upon assuming office and the pressures you were under.

I found a Hong Kong which was enormously successful as a maritime city, as one of the great economic hubs in the world. In Hong Kong's case, gateway to China, capital of the overseas Chinese, at the heart of Asia and certainly China's opening to the Western world. Hong Kong, an overwhelmingly Chinese city, 97 percent to 98 percent Chinese, a terrific success story, a refugee community which had become enormously prosperous against the odds. A Chinese city with British characteristics, not like any other Chinese city, a point that Sun Yat-sen had made. The only Chinese city where for the last hundred years people haven't had to worry about a knock on the door in the middle of the night, as one Chinese writer puts it. A city which, with six and a half million people produced a GDP which was a fifth, over a fifth the size of China's with 1.2 billion people. So an extraordinary, thriving, bustling, noisy, argumentative, rambunctious place. It was running up to a rendezvous with history in 1997. The only example of a free society which was being handed over to a society which had, to put in mildly, a different notion of freedom.

Ten years after what everyone regarded as the end of communism, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, here we are with this extraordinary, sophisticated, great city-state which wasn't about to become independent. Because of history, Hong Kong was about to become another city in China, albeit with all sorts of guarantees. Its life governed not only by the forces of international capitalism and the marketplace, but also by the treaties and agreement reached between Britain and China, all of them in a diplomatic atmosphere, redolent of the First World War battlefield, with every diplomatic engagement being fought through the modern blood of Flanders.

I found that people were enormously suspicious about British political intentions. I found a civil service which was hugely competent, but nervous about whether it would be able to retain its integrity through 1997. I found a judicial system and police that had the same worries. I found a business community, with some very honorable exceptions, by and large giving the impression it was prepared to trade off the political promises that had been made to people in Hong Kong, provided that people were going to be allowed to survive and make oodles of money. There was a lack of understanding, really, about the relationship in a successful market economy between economics and politics, between commerce and the institutions of good governance in civil society. I also found an enormously thriving civil society, strong churches, strong nongovernmental organizations, a strong and lively press -- particularly the Chinese language press which was rather less fearful than the English language press.

So, an extraordinary mix, and a very, very exciting place. Not surprisingly, I wasn't bored for two minutes in Hong Kong. If you'd have been bored in Hong Kong, heaven knows what you'd have been like anywhere else.

Politics is about navigating between a rock and hard place for most politicians. Let's explore some of these dilemmas by looking at the different pressures and interests that you had to juggle. You had to protect British interests. What were they?

I thought British interests were pretty clear. Britain had to be seen to withdraw honorably from its last colonial responsibility, even though what it was obliged to do, by history, would appear to a lot of people to be dishonorable -- what I already described: the handing over of a free society to a society which was not free. I always reckoned that honor and short -term interest and longer-term interest, in every sense, went hand in hand. If we weren't to behave honorably, for example, it would help to produce political instability , which would be extremely bad for the economy in Hong Kong. Britain had a large stake in that economy; a lot of firms on the Hong Kong stock market, a lot of British firms, and big investments of three billion also. Huge commercial stake in Hong Kong's continuing success. So I never saw what some my business critics argued -- a distinction between trying to do what was right and what was, in every sense, in Britain's interest -- its commercial interest and its political interest as well.

What about the interest of the people in Hong Kong? Anything in addition to what you already talked about?

I was very aware of the fact that they hadn't chosen me. As a democratic politician, you could hardly not be. What had happened in British politics had far more to do with my arrival in Hong Kong than anything that had happened in Hong Kong. That very much predisposed me to feeling that I had to justify myself as much as possible to the people of Hong Kong, and be as open with them as possible. That manifested itself in all sorts of things.

First of all, I wanted to change the style of the governorship. That is one reason why I didn't wear those absurd clothes -- I thought that they would distance one from the population. I tried to open up the way we did the job, the place we lived in, and so on, to the public. I got out among the public a great deal. I tried to identify with some of their interests and some of the causes they felt most passionately about. I think that that undoubtedly helped when the going got tough from time to time; we never found ourselves with public opinion or public support moving away from us, astonishingly. Throughout my period as governor, public support for even the most controversial things, for which we were attacked, remained remarkably high. I thought that there was a danger of Britain falling below its highest standards of decolonization in its last colony in the way it treated people in Hong Kong, and I hope that we were able, at least, to make up for some of what I think was rather unnecessarily tossed away before.

So the conservative MP who lost his seat in Bath was somehow focused on not losing the people of Hong Kong, even though he was not elected.

I thought, as I have suggested, that it was ironic that Bath had had more to do with what happened in Hong Kong than the people of Hong Kong had. I had to return to Hong Kong last autumn, and I think that the reception I go on that occasion underlined the fact that we were actually able to leave with people very much supporting what I and we had tried to do. That wasn't always written in the stars from the outset. Much better to have people cheering when we left than people shaking their fists or shaking placards at us.

You write about China and its interest, and you say that "Hong Kong is at once and at the same time China's window on the world, bridge to the world, shopfront to the world, and paradigm for the world of what China, on the whole, could become." In the conversations we've had -- we talked when you were Secretary of the Environment [of Britain],* and now you are talking again about public education, about the political leader as an educator. You had to, in a way, educate the Chinese government about its long-term interests. Does that describe the pressures you were feeling?

I suppose so, but I don't think I was very successful in educating some of the diehards in the Politburo. I think there were a number of difficulties that we faced.

First of all, it was easy to see why, for reasons of simple nationalism, Chinese leaders should have been very suspicious of the last imperial power still with a foothold on Chinese soil (except, of course, for Portugal in Macao, which is rather different). So they were never likely to regard what we were trying to do in Hong Kong with other than suspicion, a suspicion greatly increased by the fact that they were elderly gentlemen schooled in Leninism, and they had the notion that we must be trying to leave behind some bomb that would go off as soon as we departed. That this is the way the imperialists handled their responsibilities.

Then you add to that the fact that it was a time of considerable uncertainty in China, the last days of Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin was establishing his authority. Nobody was going to take any risks about policy. In those circumstances the easiest thing to do, as far as Hong Kong was concerned, was simply to say "No!" No initiatives and no attempt at vision; just get through until you can actually get your hands on the pot of gold! So they were not easy to deal with, suspicious, narrow-minded, unaware of the importance of trying to win people's hearts and minds in Hong Kong, as well as just take over the real estate. They were very, very reluctant to accept that people in Hong Kong were moderate, reasonable, and that the best way to make them immoderate and unreasonable was to deny them their aspirations of continuing to live in a free society.

I actually think the Chinese have behaved with rather more sophistication about Hong Kong since the first of July that they did before. I suspect that is because they are now having to look at Hong Kong face to face rather than through the prism of our being responsible for it. But they did what they so regularly do. They, by and large, broke their word while being frightfully moralistic and allegedly high-minded about everything. They were very tough and thuggish in negotiations, they bullied and tried to intimidate, until they discovered that that wasn't getting them anywhere, and then they simply return to the pavilion and sat there, waiting for the game to be over.

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See 1989 interview, "Shaping Environmental Policy"
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