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“You have to say when things are wicked”: Chris Patten’s lessons from negotiating with China

Hong Kong's last British governor on hopes betrayed, the risk of repeating mistakes and his view of Boris Johnson.

By Katie Stallard

Chris Patten does not mince his words about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The last British governor of Hong Kong recalls his final meeting with a delegation of senior officials, including the president, Jiang Zemin, in the hours before the handover to Chinese rule on 1 July 1997. “As I looked at these clapped-out old tyrants, I thought to myself, ‘Why do we allow ourselves to be bullied by these people?’” Patten confided to his diary at the time. “Most of them are not remotely impressive and are scared stiff of the world. All they can do is bully.”

Twenty-five years later, having watched the CCP destroy the freedoms it had promised to preserve in Hong Kong until 2047, Patten stands by that appraisal. He recalls the assurance of the former British ambassador to China, Percy Cradock, when he first arrived in Hong Kong, that “the Chinese may be thuggish dictators, but they’re men of their word”. Well, we know now, he said, “that part of that was true, but alas, not the second part.”

Patten, 78, was speaking to me by videocall from the sunlit sitting room of his home in Barnes (his formal title as Conservative peer is Lord Patten of Barnes), in south-west London, where he had just succeeded in persuading his terrier, Bobby, to leave the room on the second attempt. The former Conservative Party chairman, who is now chancellor of Oxford University, quips in his new book, The Hong Kong Diaries, that he only ended up in Hong Kong thanks to the people of Bath, who voted him out as their MP in the 1992 general election. Had the vote gone differently, he says John Major told him that he had wanted to make him chancellor of the exchequer. Instead Major asked whether he would be interested in serving as governor of Hong Kong.

The territory had been ceded to the UK by China during the Opium Wars of the 19th century – as part of what is known there as the “century of humiliation” – along with a further swathe of land that was leased for 99 years in 1898. After many years of negotiations, London and Beijing agreed in 1984 that Hong Kong would return to Chinese rule in 1997, but that its freedoms would be preserved for the next 50 years, according to the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty that was signed by both sides and lodged at the United Nations. The arrangement was known as “one country, two systems”. As the handover neared, Patten recorded his concerns as to where China’s priorities lay.

“It’s more and more apparent that the Chinese want to sort out all the ‘one country’ matters, while we are more bothered about the ‘two systems’ agenda,” he wrote on 20 March 1997. Looking back on those discussions now, he said he was never convinced that his interlocutors had understood the importance of Hong Kong’s legal system to its extraordinary economic success. “I used to wonder to myself whether the Chinese actually knew what Hong Kong was like,” he said, “or whether they just thought it was a place where people could get rich.” He recalled one telling exchange with his opposite number in Beijing, who had assured him that the CCP believed in “rule by law”, to which he responded: “But you don’t believe in the rule of law, which is fundamentally different.”

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[See also: The betrayal of Hong Kong]

Patten spent five years in Hong Kong, from 1992 until 1997, when he departed on the royal yacht Britannia alongside Prince Charles after the handover ceremony. I asked him whether he had personally believed at the time that the territory’s freedoms would be protected, and that Hong Kong’s identity would be preserved under Chinese rule. “Well, it was a hope,” he said. “I really did think it was possible that Hong Kong might change the rest of China more than China would change Hong Kong.” After all, he told me, “I could never understand why China would need to change very much, given that she was taking over a Rolls-Royce and all she had to do was to turn the ignition.”

He was not alone in this view. Hong Kong’s economy was more than 18 per cent of the size of the whole Chinese mainland’s in 1997 and its value to the CCP as an international business hub seemed clear. There was also considerable optimism among many in the West that China’s rapid economic growth would be followed by political liberalisation. For example, Patten recalls the prevailing assumption of how China would change after its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 (when Patten was European Commissioner for external relations). “We deluded ourselves that it would inevitably lead to the Chinese becoming, in political and governance terms, ‘more like us’,” he said. “I remember Tony Blair saying on one occasion after they had signed the WTO agreement that now their route to democracy was ‘unstoppable’. Well, it has stopped!”

Instead of the rest of China becoming more like Hong Kong and preserving the territory’s freedoms as it had promised, Beijing steadily increased its control and stripped those freedoms away. Street protests in recent years have been mercilessly crushed and a new national security law that was introduced in 2020 effectively signalled the end of the “one country, two systems” arrangement in all but name. Yet while the British government has strongly criticised the move and accused Beijing of breaching its treaty commitments, it has yet to impose sanctions on individual officials as the US and EU have done. Indeed, in recent months Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, have urged the resumption of trade talks with China.

I asked Patten whether he thought the British government was in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past in prioritising the economic relationship with China over meaningful action in response to Beijing’s human rights abuses. When I mentioned George Osborne’s calls to create a “golden decade” of UK-China relations during a speech at the Shanghai stock exchange in 2015 when he was chancellor, for example, Patten theatrically buried his head in his hands. “Yes, we are in danger of making those mistakes,” he said. “I hope we won’t go back to some of the awful flannel and the awful self-abasement of the so-called golden age, with George Osborne going to Urumqi [in Xinjiang, where members of the Uyghur ethnic minority were already being persecuted and more than a million people would subsequently be confined to internment camps].” The idea that you had to tiptoe around the CCP’s sensitivities for fear of negative economic consequences was “absolute cobblers”, Patten said.

Patten said he always recalled the words of the late journalist Jonathan Mirsky, who had witnessed students being shot at close range by government troops in Tiananmen Square in 1989. “He was always adamant that you had to say when things were wicked, and I think there’s a real danger when we’re dealing with Russia over Ukraine, and when we’re dealing with China, that what we actually want to say is, ‘Well, you know, I’m sure we can find some sensible compromise and work with you’,” he said. “But you can’t find a compromise when people are doing things that are wicked. You have to call them out and make it clear that that is absolutely against your interests, the world’s interests, and indeed, their interests.”

As for Hong Kong’s prospects, Patten has not given up hope that a brighter future is still possible and that Nelson Mandela’s famous assurance that you can’t “lock up an idea” will prove true. “I hope that happens in Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong’s notion of citizenship outlasts the nasty things that the Chinese Communist Party has done,” he said. “I hope that, but I couldn’t ask somebody to bet their future on it.”

[See also: How Hong Kong’s struggle defines our world]

Patten has also given a lot of thought lately to the future of the Conservative Party he once chaired and where it is heading under Boris Johnson. In the book, he writes that Johnson has been correctly described as a “moral vacuum” and he told me that he has grave concerns for both the party and the wider country. “I think that the Communist party –” he stops and corrects himself, chuckling at the slip, “that the Conservative party is in danger of turning into an English nationalist party, and I think there are real threats to the union – to England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – there are real threats across the board.”

“I think we have a government which is pretty incompetent, and which is a cause for shame because of the seedy way it behaves. It doesn’t mean that everybody in it is like that, but people take their lesson from the top.”

Asked who he would like to see replace Johnson, he said he didn’t want to blight anybody’s chances by backing them, but that there were several people who would do a much better job, including the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt. “I don’t think one should necessarily be too gloomy about the future,” he concluded. “But it does depend on people standing up for what they believe in, and not taking any self-serving, dangerous rubbish from political leaders.”

[See also: Boris Johnson has infected his party with chaos]

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