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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Out of this [Hong Kong] experience you emerged with a greater sense of what the West stands for and the importance of asserting those values as you deal with the problems of globalization, with the problems of relating to the East. What did you rediscover about capitalism and liberal democracy?

Well, the first thing I saw about the values we stood for is that they aren't specifically Western values. I think they are values which have a universal application. I don't think you can look, for example, at European history in this century and argue that it demonstrates an inherent commitment, on the part of European cultures and European people and European counties, to all the principles of a plural society. This is a century in Europe which produced Stalin, which produced Hitler, which produced some of the greatest atrocities. This is century that produced the most bizarre experiments with totalitarian economics; so I don't think we can or should sound patronizing when we talk about the values of liberal democracy as though they had some unique Western credibility -- a point made in a slightly different way, extremely well, by Amartya Sen,1 who argues that we tend in the West to argue back from present institutional experience to suggest that somehow there is a greater history of tolerance and commitment to tolerance in the West than in Asia. In the West, after all, we also had the divine right of kings, and you can go back to early Indian philosophy and point to a much more tolerant philosophical commitment on the part of Indian society, to take that particular instance.

What I felt very strongly when I read about Asia, when I met Asians, when I governed an Asian city, was that the things that I believed constituted a decent society were pretty much the same in Asia as they would be in Europe or North America. I found the relativist approach to values offensive. I found the whole argument about Asian values offensive. The notion that Asians didn't care about human rights, about the individual, about representative government, as though those things were somehow excluded from the Asian consciousness, I thought not only showed scant knowledge of history. After all, it's only a generation ago that Asians were fighting my own country precisely for those values, when they were fighting for there own independence. It's over a hundred years, or nearly a hundred years, since Sun Yat-sen was fighting for those things in China. So I thought that it showed a very limited knowledge of history, and I though it was also an offensive and patronizing view. The idea that there is some Asian homogeneity which brings together Zen Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam and Catholicism and Taoism and Maoism is for the birds. Of course there are different and wonderful Asian cultures and histories. One Asian country is different from another, just as one European country is different from another. So, my main and very strong, intensely strong feeling, which grew with the time I spent in Asia, was that people like Lee Kwan Yu, who argue that there was some special continent-based culture which explained, for example, the Asian boom -- I just though that was intellectually trite and rather offensive.

You write, "On every continent, societies that combine political and economic liberty will more probably be successful, stable, and content than those that do not." Elsewhere you say "You cannot compartmentalize freedom; you may build walls between economics and politics, but they are walls of sand."

I feel that very, very strongly. When I arrived in Hong Kong, one of the Chinese arguments was that Hong Kong was an economic city, we should forget about politics. I mean, for Chinese communists to say that, who try to politicize everything, is, of course, an absurdity, but you can't make a distinction between economic man or woman and political man or woman. I think that there is a wealth of evidence for that not only today, but in the past.

A couple of the arguments which are related to that have, of course, been blown out of the water since the Asian crash in 1997. First of all, it was very often argued that somehow the whole of Asia had moved beyond politics and that the particular authoritarianism of many Asian governments was essential to nation-building and establishing an economy. Tell them that on the streets of Jakarta today.

You can argue that some Asian governments in countries that did very well were authoritarian, but you can't argue that authoritarianism was the reason why they did well (although you can argue, I think , that authoritarianism was one of the reasons why they blew up). The second argument, which was very often used (suggesting that politics didn't really play a part in the way Asians did things), was the argument that Asians had found some new form of capitalism. I think it was an argument that had a particular play in Europe, where a lot of academics and politicians for many years have swooned about the relationship between [Japan's] MITI and the Ministry of Finance, and Japanese banks and businesses, or between the cheobols, the great conglomerates in South Korea, and the government and the banks and the politicians. Now, of course, we call it crony capitalism and tell the Asians they must do things differently.

It's bankrupt.

There were a lot of arguments, a lot of examples of the sense in which those distinctions between politics and economics [were blurred], and then the redefinitions of what successful economies actually required. I think a lot of that was tosh and shown to be tosh.

I hear you saying as you speak now that the idea of "Western" values is really about the road that the West took. You are touching upon the point that the human rights movement has made and is making about the importance of a certain set of values for the human condition. You are emphasizing not only the moral dimension, but also the practical dimension. In a sense, human rights go with a free economy, which goes with prosperity.

One of the great things which business should have discovered as a result of what's happened in Asia is that the best places to do business are the countries that treat their citizens most decently. Well, what a surprise! There is the discovery that in China that the same law for Wei Jingsheng or Wang Dan is the law for Microsoft and Ronald McDonald and Eli Lilly and all the others. It is a sort of great Victorian truth that actually, trying to do the right thing is pretty good for you and pretty good for business as well, by and large.

I think that one of my objections to many business leaders -- and this is a sweeping generalization and there are a lot who aren't in this category at all -- isn't so much that they appear to be trying to inhabit an "ethics-free zone" as that they appear, when they get involved in politics, to be living in a common sense - free zone. I think this is particularly true in dealing with China. There is a wonderful book which I cite a great deal in my own, by Lucian Pye, the great political scientist, about negotiating with China.2 He conceptualizes from a lot individual experience and anecdote. One of the important points that he is makes is the number of times that businessmen and company chairmen simply leave their normal common sense at the door when they go to negotiate with the Chinese. So it is an important part of my argument that we live in a world where trying to get it right is good for you.

Next page: The West and China

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California

1. See the interview with Amartya Sen (2005)

2. Pye, Lucien: Chinese Negotiating Style (Quorum Books, 1992)