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 appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague