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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Ian Teh / Panos
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The dream deferred

In the 20 years since China regained control of the territory, Hong Kong has seen its autonomy steadily eroded. Now Britain must support Hong Kongers in their fight for democracy.

Memory often murders time. What you recollect happened, surely just the other day, is ­already a part of that most difficult stretch of history, so confusing because it happened so recently. The question I am asked most is: “Do you miss Hong Kong?” It is as though the questioner thinks I have only recently come home. A taxi driver last month (the conversation of taxi drivers remains something for which I do not regret paying a premium over Uber fares) responded, when I replied to this familiar question citing the 20 years I had been gone from Asia: “Bloody hell, am I that old?”

Well, we are all that old. It was on 30 June 1997 that my family and I sailed on the Royal Yacht (which Britain then mothballed) into the South China Sea to join a huge naval fleet (much of which is now also mothballed). Ten years later, we had a big party at my old Oxford college to celebrate the anniversary. This year we will attend a Beating of the Retreat. There does not seem quite so much to cheer.

Naturally, I do still miss Hong Kong; my family misses it, too. And please don’t ask about our famous terriers, better known in the territory (colony, really) than we were, as Matthew Parris once shrewdly pointed out. They barked their last all too long ago. The five years I spent in Hong Kong were the happiest years of my life, personally and professionally. Hong Kong was and remains a great city, one of the most exciting in the world. It manifests more rumbustiously than most the connection, to which the great urbanist Jane Jacobs drew attention, between economic growth and a city’s clutter.

Social engineering was not a notion that reared its well-barbered head there. We left that to Singapore, where, to be fair, it thrived. But as I once said to the late Lee Kuan Yew (who I reckon harboured a secret admiration, even envy, for Hong Kong): “Just try asking people in our city to queue, refrain from chewing gum or smoking in the street.” Yes, Singapore’s founding father responded, but if I had your people my GDP would be 25 per cent higher. Oh dear – clever and worldly-wise though Lee was, some things he never understood, such as Jane Jacobs’s insights.

Clutter was a reason for Hong Kong’s success, but also for its charm: the markets, the traders in “off-the-back-of-a-lorry” designer labels, the cafés and restaurants spilling out on to the streets, the hustle and bustle of districts that you would suddenly find had turned into a quieter urban backwater, with a temple on one corner and an open-air barbershop on another, the barber’s cigarette held delicately in the tips of his fingers as he snipped away with the other hand. Does that Hong Kong still exist? It seems to, though today it is a bit more beleaguered by development. Hong Kong is always building something new: bigger, higher, glitzier, sometimes so flash that the city seems to be parodying itself, tongue in cheek.

None of this means that there has ever been much of a debate along European or American lines about cutting back the role of the state – about the demarcation of the boundary between government and individuals. The government has by and large done what the public thinks it has to do: housing, infrastructure, education, health, security, market regulation. It does these things with the help of market forces and on the whole also keeps taxes low. There is no Hong Kong industrial strategy, thank heavens, except to invest in education and build roads, bridges, airports and so on.

When I was there I was often attacked by Chinese Communists for being – well, socialist. We increased spending on priorities such as social welfare, disability and health. Improvements in the last led ­people to switch from private to public provision. We were able to do this because the economy grew year after year. The abiding social problem was the monopoly of the public sector in housing, and the shortage of ­owner-occupied accommodation for those who could afford it. Dealing with these interrelated issues in a territory of Hong Kong’s size remains the city’s biggest social challenge, made worse by the extent to which flat purchase becomes a means by which mainland Chinese can launder money. Is there no way to stop this? It causes huge local resentment.

As for life outside working hours, Hong Kong is rightly famous for its marvellous east and south Asian food. It had, when we were there, a surprisingly good music scene. There is excellent walking in the New Territories. Religious life is vibrant, with the churches in the forefront of most of the trickiest social provision. The democracy movement was full of active Christians, taking a leaf from the testament of the retired Catholic primate Cardinal Zen, a brave and outspoken priest.

Some would think I should set against the pleasure I got from all this the political turbulence of dealing with the handover of sovereignty to China, some of the consequences of which still attract the most attention outside Hong Kong today. This was less traumatic than it perhaps seemed at the time. I began by recognising that the starting point was less than ideal. Yes, we had agreements with China that guaranteed Hong Kong’s progress to the sort of democratic arrangements that would help ensure the survival of its limited autonomy and unlimited enjoyment of the rule of law.

It was true that this process should have started years earlier, but for reasons both just about defensible (Beijing was strongly opposed, thinking this would be the first step to independence) and bad (Hong Kongers were wrongly said to be uninterested in politics), the bare minimum headway was made. Yet when the British government signed the handover treaty with China (the Joint Declaration) and told the House of Commons, and everyone else who asked, that steady democratisation was the ultimate guarantee of the city’s future freedom, we still searched for reasons to do as little as possible to make this happen. If you don’t believe me, ask some of the bold champions of democracy such as Martin Lee and Emily Lau. The colonial power even managed to carry out a survey that purported to show that Hong Kong people did not want a faster pace of democracy. A pity, that, because had Britain pushed things along in the 1980s, the hardware and software of democracy would have had longer to bed down.

***

So much for so much complex and not so honourable history. What of today? My main diplomatic adviser in 1997 used to say to his Chinese interlocutors that we were leaving them a Rolls-Royce: all they had to do was turn the ignition on, and off the motor car would go. Politically Hong Kong was stable; I do not recall in my time a demonstration of more than a few score or low hundreds against the colonial oppressors, though tens of thousands would gather on 4 June each year to remember those who in 1989 were murdered in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese army. As for the economy, the Rolls-Royce was firing quietly on all cylinders while much of the rest of Asia dipped towards the late-1990s crash.

Does Hong Kong’s motor still purr quietly on the road to success? Economic growth has slowed in comparison to the rapid rate before 1997, and the growth per head has been slower than in several other Asian countries, but overall the economy has not done too badly, still achieving over 3 per cent growth in the latest figures. The slowdown may be the result of a tendency of big achievers in developing markets to hit a plateau when they squeeze out the initial bonus of higher productivity and technological spurts. Some commentators pin the blame on the change in sovereignty, which even I think is a bit unfair. In comparison to China, of course, Hong Kong’s clout has diminished. In 1997 the Hong Kong economy was about 17 per cent the size of China’s, with roughly seven million citizens. Today the figure has fallen to 3 per cent as China’s growth rate has roared ahead. Just set China’s catch-up (at least in aggregate but not per capita figures) against the United States.

This shift may have emboldened the Chinese Communist leadership to think that it can do what it wants with Hong Kong, that anyway after 20 years no one is going to raise a finger if the Politburo gradually squeezes the autonomy and pluralism out of the city. That, along with President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on any sort of political disagreement on the mainland, would help explain why evidence for a toughening of Beijing’s policy on Hong Kong is mounting.

What outsiders point to most frequently is the issue that, above all, sparked the huge and impressive demonstrations in 2014, namely China’s adamant refusal to allow any development of Hong Kong’s system of accountability. Beijing explicitly ­promised Hong Kong citizens that it would be for them to decide how their legislative council should be elected. Twenty years on, they still do not have the universal suffrage that Margaret Thatcher believed would exist within ten years of the handover. And Legco, as it is known, is still pretty much as far as it ever was from achieving that, with just over half its members elected from geographical constituencies and the rest from functional (job- or profession-based) constituencies with a limited number of voters. Before 1997, we had pushed things as far as we could in the direction of free and fair elections within the existing agreements. Since then things have gone backwards.

As for the election of a chief executive, that is still conducted on sub-Iranian lines. Beijing in practice decides who can be a candidate. The choice is then determined by a hand-picked election committee of about 1,200, “chosen” by 7 per cent of the electorate (drawn from members of the functional constituencies covering professionals and industries from agriculture to textiles, and from members of China’s People’s Congress). The latest winner, Carrie Lam, who takes office on 1 July, is likely to be better and more popular than the present boss, Leung Chun-ying – not a very high hurdle to clear.

But her main attraction to Beijing was that she had refused to attempt any accommodation with democracy supporters – unlike her main rival, the very competent former finance minister John Tsang, who enjoyed a huge lead over Lam in the opinion polls. We should all wish Lam well; much will depend on her willingness to morph into Hong Kong’s spokesperson to Beijing rather than being Beijing’s surrogate boss in Hong Kong. She will have to show that election is different from selection, and that when the sacred constitutional texts talk about universal suffrage as “the ultimate goal”, “ultimate” is not a word that dwells in never-never land.

The clampdown on the aspiration for greater accountability in Hong Kong has ­inevitably pushed some young activists into wilder demands, going beyond democracy to independence. Last November I spoke to hundreds of them at Hong Kong University. They were polite and forceful. I told them why I think their action is misguided. Hong Kong is not an emerging nation state. Many outsiders and insiders will, like me, strongly support demands for greater democracy in Hong Kong while arguing against the unattainable and provocative demand for independence. This campaign plays into the hands of Beijing’s hardliners and dilutes support for democratic change in Hong Kong, support that has repeatedly attracted six out of every ten voters at election.

***

Protests at China’s squeeze on Hong Kong go well beyond arguments about electoral arrangements. Though I raised both eyebrows at Taiwan’s claim that there had been about 170 Chinese breaches of the Joint Declaration, it is beyond serious dispute that Beijing has been increasing the pressure on Hong Kong’s pluralist windpipe. There has been a steady erosion of autonomy, with Beijing’s government offices in the territory increasing their behind-the-scenes efforts to dabble in and shape Hong Kong’s domestic affairs. There have been abductions of Hong Kongers (some with foreign passports) by mainland security officials: booksellers and a billionaire bag-carrier for the Beijing elite who probably knew too much about Communist Party corruption. There have been attempts (unsuccessful) to cow the city’s judges and a recent direct intervention in a case being tried before Hong Kong’s own courts.

Academics express concern over growing constraints on academic and institutional autonomy in higher education. Beijing looked at the impressive democracy protests in 2014 and pinned the blame for them on schools and universities, particularly law departments. Freedom of speech has been under financial and physical assault, though thankfully there has not been a repetition of the most violent attacks on journalists since one brave editor, Kevin Lau, was maimed in 2014, a throwback to the worst sort of politically motivated gangland activity in Shanghai before and after the Second World War.

And yet, and yet . . . despite all this, Hong Kong continues to be one of the freest societies in Asia. How so? The answer is both simple and admirable. The people of Hong Kong recognise and stand up for their freedoms and the rule of law. They are of course Chinese, but they are Hong Kong Chinese. They have a deep sense of Hong Kong citizenship. Should that surprise anyone? It is what Deng Xiaoping’s mantra – defined after “seeking truth from facts”, as he put it, and meant to encompass Taiwan and Macau as well as Hong Kong – actually meant: “One country, two systems”. It was intended as the foundation of Hong Kong’s way of life for 50 years after 1997. It was enunciated because, as he argued in 1984, “The Chinese in Hong Kong . . . have the ability to run the affairs of Hong Kong well.” They should, he went on, be confident of that.

Two thoughts occur immediately. Is that still Beijing’s view? We are often told by Beijing apologists that, however tough they may be at the negotiating table, Chinese Communists always keep to the agreements they make. I am not sure of the evidential basis for this; perhaps it is based on faith not facts. Whatever, how Chinese Communists handle their promises about Hong Kong will tell us a great deal about how in the years ahead they will play their hand as part of the global community. So, when Chinese officials say that no one else should “interfere” in Hong Kong, by which they mean take an interest in what is happening there, the truth is that it is not just Britain that must do so. The Joint Declaration is a binding agreement between London and Beijing on behalf of Hong Kongers; Britain is obliged by a treaty, lodged at the UN (pacta sunt servanda and all that), to take our ­obligations seriously. But others also have an interest in helping keep an eye on the future of the territory.

Second, Communists in Beijing have spent more time parroting “one country, two systems” than thinking through what it actually means. They should not be surprised that Hong Kongers have a notion of their citizenship which incorporates freedom, pluralism, democracy and the rule of law. They are not, on the whole, communist, whatever that means. (You tell me how whatever it is that comprises the modern Chinese system of governance corresponds to socialism of any recognisable sort.) They have lived as free men and women, comfortable with the responsibilities and challenges of pluralism. When President Xi goes to Hong Kong to celebrate 20 years under rule by Beijing, he should go out of his way to repeat Deng Xiaoping’s promise and show that today it still means something.

What should the rest of us do? Here in Britain, particularly as the former colonial power, we should make our continuing ­interest in Hong Kong much plainer than we are inclined to do. We are still often afflicted by the collywobbles when it is suggested that we should raise our voice in dealing with China.

I have just finished a book that deals, among other matters, with the alleged civilisational clash between Asia and the rest of the world. Hong Kong naturally features. So I went back to look at my diary for 1992-97 to check on the pusillanimity of some British business leaders and diplomats during that period. I was shocked to be reminded that it was even worse than I had remembered. We still seem to fear that unless we kowtow, China’s markets will be closed to British business.

Truth to tell, the Germans and others do not do so much better than us because they prostrate themselves more obligingly. I have grown weary presenting figures that rebut the idea that – despite the minatory noises of Chinese diplomats in London and elsewhere – only servility wins business. Maybe “global Britain” freed from “the shackles” of Brussels will develop a rather stronger backbone. I just hope that we show a greater sense of honour and stand up for the generation of Joshua Wong and the other young leaders of the democracy movement more strongly than we did for their parents’ generation.

A final thought: Hong Kong is where some of the most important arguments of the coming century will be played out. Are values universal? What role should human rights play in foreign policy? Does it matter if big nations cannot be trusted to keep their word? What is the relationship between economic and political freedom?

The last question is particularly germane to China. It is plain to see that there is intellectual and political conflict in today’s allegedly communist China, a great country with an ancient civilisation. There are those who think that if the party gives up control over the economy it will sooner or later lose control of the state. On the other hand, some assert that unless the party stands back from controlling the economy it will certainly lose control of the state because of a deteriorating economic performance. China’s dilemma is that clearly both these arguments are true. As I argue in my book, Hong Kong would be a good place for President Xi to discover a way of devising a solution to this existential question of governance. My confident expectation is that, whatever happens, Hong Kong’s freedom will last a lot longer than President Xi’s politburo.

Chris Patten was the governor of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997. His book “First Confession: a Sort of Memoir” is newly published by Allen Lane (£20)

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit