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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Lessons Learned

What would you, in retrospect, do differently as governor-general?

I've often been asked that question. It sounds rather vain to say, "not very much," because I don't think my difficulties with China were really a question of style or the way we did things. I think they were about substance, and I think they were about principle. I could have had an easy life with China if I had done things differently, but very difficult life with Hong Kong, and with British public opinion and with international public opinion. But above all with Hong Kong. I think that the thing I would have done differently is not let some of the negotiation go on as long as they did. The Chinese are past masters at spinning things out. I go back to something at the outset, I think that the doctrine of "unripe time" is nearly always nonsense.

What was your greatest success?

I think that the greatest success was getting through those five years with the economy in great shape, with society extraordinarily stable, with civil society self-confident and vigorous, with the development of, for example, a self-confidant political culture. I think all of those things were successes and none of them was inevitable. I remember shortly before I went to Hong Kong, being interviewed by one newspaper editor who said to me afterwards, "Well, I think that the chances are about even as to whether you leave on the royal yacht in 1997, or leave from a helicopter from the roof of the government house ballroom." I think that was an exaggeration. But nevertheless, things could have gone very wrong. Things could have fallen apart, and they didn't. And I think that we are entitled to some credit for that.

What helped you survive during this process: I recall a paragraph in your book where you say that going out and doing what Lyndon Johnson used to call "pressing the flesh," meeting with the people with Hong Kong was very recuperative for you. Please talk about that.

Obviously, there were times when I felt, pretty lonely, not beleaguered. I always had the support of at least the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and some of my old political colleagues in Britain. But they were a long way off. And between me and them, there were quite a few businessman who had been muttering in their ears saying how appalling I was for trade -- a point which I take on in the book and show was demonstratively nonsense. So, to that extent, geographically one was more isolated than if you were a member of a Cabinet doing a difficult job back home. There was also, clearly, some sense of cultural isolation, because I didn't speak the language. Actually communicating as a politician in those circumstances is rather difficult. Day after day, particularly in 1992 and 1993, I was being attacked by the mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party. What used to cheer me up was getting out among the people, and also, and without sounding sanctimonious, thinking we were actually being attacked because we were doing the right thing. Whatever the Chinese said or did, or whatever the local tycoons said or did, things were getting better in Hong Kong. We were able to demonstrate that the modest reforms and changes we made strengthened society rather than weakened it. So, the demonstration effect helped to encourage one as well. I think that in politics when you are under a lot of pressure, you do occasionally get gloomy about things. But I had a staff and a family that were extremely good at getting me to snap out of it.

One final question. As Secretary of the Environment [in 1989], you thought a lot about values. What lessons might students draw from your experience about bringing values, whether on human rights, the environment, or whatever, to politics?

I think that if politics is just about getting your backside on important seats, then it's a pretty worthless endeavor. I think that politics which is just about nudging things this way or that, which is just about process, which is just about trying to win another election, which is just about trying to get in office; I think that sort of politics isn't ever going to do very much to change the world. I think that politics is, above all, about ideas: trying to articulate the ideas that make the greatest sense and which have the greatest relevance to peoples' lives, and then getting out and fighting for them. I hate the way in which so much contemporary politics seems to be driven by seeking to go out and discover what people want and then finding ways in which you can accommodate that. I think that the great politicians and the people who change the world have an agenda and are able to mobilize consent for it. It is not to say that the process doesn't matter, but the process is less important than the outcome.

So, what I say to people is that politics has got to be about principle and values above all. Of course, there are times when you have to make accommodations. It's painful and you run the charge of applying double standards and being cynical. But that is the part of politics which provides a bridge between the principle and reality. But do start off by having the principles and the values. Otherwise, go off and be banker or a chartered accountant or whatever. Though there is no reason why you shouldn't be a principled banker or financier.

Mr. Patten, thank you very much for being with us today and sharing with us your experiences. We hope to have you back in a few years, after you have finished your job in Ireland.

Thank you very much indeed.

Thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California

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