At the general election on 9 April 1992, Conservative Party chairman Chris Patten, who had been the MP for Bath since 1979, lost his seat to the Liberal Democrats. But this was far from the end of the story: the Prime Minister, John Major, saw him as the ideal candidate to become the last Governor of Hong Kong… Here, in an exclusive extract from his diaries, he gives an unprecedented insight into fraught negotiations with China and the path to 'one country, two systems'.
Friday 17–Tuesday 21 April 1992
I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister to say that I would like to go to Hong Kong. I felt a bit guilty about leaving him and the government. But, as Lavender [Patten’s wife] said, I wasn’t really to blame! The truth is that I am at the heart of a great irony in which the Governor of Hong Kong has been chosen by the electors of Bath.
I am immensely excited by the prospect. It would be a difficult job, but I think it is important to show the world that we can handle this last imperial responsibility in a decent way and which doesn’t betray the people of Hong Kong.
All my briefings make me realise the conflicting pressures that I will be under. In Hong Kong itself people both want a quiet life with China and at the same time a Governor who is prepared to stand up to China on their behalf. It is obviously perfectly possible to construct a wholly rational policy which will fall somewhere between the Bishop Muzorewas and the Mr Mugabes of Hong Kong. But since we need a majority to get business through the Legislative Council, this will produce some problems for Hong Kong’s executive.
Those old bruisers in Beijing plainly don’t trust Britain at all. It’s extraordinary that given the effort we have put into the relationship with China – Sinophile experts in the Foreign Office, trade links and even Ted Heath at his occasionally charming – that this should continue. There are a lot of circles to square.
Thursday 2–Saturday 4 July
The three issues that I am really bothered about are these: First of all, I have to push through arrangements to secure Hong Kong’s future judicial arrangements. These have focused recently on the establishment of a court of final appeal (CFA) – the colony’s senior judicial body – on which there is as yet no agreement. Second, how we can bring Hong Kong’s laws into line with the Bill of Rights that was introduced in 1991. This will involve getting rid of some colonial legislation. Third, there is no agreement yet on how to conduct the 1994 elections for Hong Kong’s local government and the Legco elections in 1995. I’m absolutely sure that I can make the whole package more open, fair and obviously accountable. I expect Chinese apparatchiks will be unnerved by any attempts which seek to secure a fairer electoral process.
There are also very different views across the Foreign Office about how to deal with all this. There is a cadre at the top of older Sinophiles who think that only people with their experience of dealing with the Chinese know quite how to behave. They pretty well take it for granted that ultimately you have to go along with Beijing rather than risk arguments. There is a group in the middle, about my own age, who seem to be prepared to be rather more robust with the Chinese. A younger group are much more ebullient in their views and think we should flex our own muscles occasionally.
I’ve got increasingly cross about references to Chinese ‘face’ (by the older group in particular) and feel that we need to refer ourselves to British ‘face’ from time to time. I made this point to a glamorous Hong Kong United Front activist called Nellie Fong, an emissary allegedly sent to me by my opposite number in Beijing, Lu Ping. She seemed rather shocked by what I had to say. Why did I not understand the honour of dealing with those who had the mandate of heaven? I suppose she could have noted that I didn’t even have the mandate of Bath.
Much of the time during the summer is spent saying goodbye to our friends and our daughters Kate and Laura. It is going to feel horribly like the break-up for the time being of a very close family. Kate is in Uruguay as part of a gap year between school and Newcastle University. Laura has decided that she doesn’t want to come to Hong Kong to work or study. She is set on going to the superb Prue Leith cookery school in London.
I hope she won’t mind too much the fact that one of her sisters will be in Newcastle and the other in Hong Kong, because that is what our youngest Alice has decided she wants to do. I think most parents sooner or later come to understand that as their children grow older they morph from colonial dependencies into rival sovereignties.
Sunday 5 July
I went to Mass in the cathedral and then we left on our adventure. Five years ago, on a Sunday morning, I would probably have been sitting here doing my boxes as Minister for Overseas Development. When I’m back here in five years’ time, what on earth will I be preparing to do and what will Hong Kong have done to the Patten family? Alice stood in the bedroom which has been the centre of her childhood in floods of tears. I said to her, ‘I bet you cry in five years’ time when you leave Hong Kong.’
Thursday 9 July
After we landed, we went to the main airport building, where our clothes were brought to us so we could make an appropriately well dressed entry to the city. I have a rather smart double-breasted grey suit which I bought just before we left from Aquascutum; later it was described by the appalling Nicholas Fairbairn as a Harry Lime outfit. At least it doesn’t have broad chalk stripes and wasn’t, like most of my suits, bought off the peg at Marks & Spencer. I get my first insight into the marvellously competent way in which my life is going to be arranged from now on. My ADC, an immaculately dressed police superintendent, has brought a couple of extra pairs of cufflinks and a belt just in case I forgot them myself. I’m to learn in due course that I’m not really trusted to dress myself any more. We drove from the airport to the quayside in Kowloon through cheering, waving crowds. They were very responsive when I practised my royal wave.
We crossed the harbour, one of the great journeys in the world. Fire boats spray water; a 17-gun salute resounds from HMS Tamar, the onshore naval base; and there was a fly-past by planes and helicopters. I was never greeted like this in Bath.
Friday 10 July
After getting up this morning, I wandered into my dressing room and found my clothes for the day laid out neatly – boxers, socks, shirt, tie, suit, beautifully polished shoes. My very nice valet was hovering over them looking slightly nervous. I had to explain to him that I thought he had done brilliantly, but that in future I thought I would be able to dress myself in the morning. I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings. I’ve cleaned my own shoes since my dad taught me when I was a small boy. As I have got older, I have taken less and less time over this sartorial task. From now on I can count on having the most shiny shoes in Asia.
Thursday 16 July
After intelligence briefings, I had lunch at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank with a group of local business leaders, including the taipans of Swire’s and Jardine’s. The conversation doesn’t strike me as being terribly high-powered. They all seem rather naïve about politics and don’t seem to understand that things just can’t go on as they have been. If this is where political advice was coming from for the last quarter-century, no wonder we’ve got into the present difficulties.
I almost forgot the most important event of the day – or, as Alice may argue, of most days. When she said she wanted to come with us to Hong Kong, she talked quite a lot about the desirability of having a dog, or maybe two. After much discussion we settled on getting a couple of Norfolk terriers.
The first, a male aged 10 months, who is to be called Whisky, arrived today. His companion, a bitch who is a bit younger, will arrive later. Whisky emerged from his temporary incarceration in the hold of a BA plane looking rather bemused. He is a very pretty little fellow and doesn’t seem to bark. I think everybody who works with us will take to him in a big way, though no doubt we may need recourse to sponges, mops and buckets for some time.
Saturday 18–Sunday 19 July
We went for the weekend to the Governor’s country house at Fanling: it’s in the New Territories, quite close to the border. It’s a very nice, manageable villa, a bit like a 1930s Sunningdale or Wentworth home; and suitably surrounded by golf courses. Ah Lam and his wife Ah Fok have looked after the place for years. Ah Lam got very excited on my first evening. Feeling rather exhausted after the week and wanting a serious pick-me-up I asked him whether he had any gin and vermouth so that I could make myself a dry martini. At the words dry martini his eyes sparkled. ‘Dry martini,’ he enthused, ‘I have not made one since Lord MacLehose was Governor. Lord MacLehose had one dry martini every day at six, second dry martini 6.15, if third dry martini big trouble.’
Thursday 1 October
Douglas Hurd [Foreign Secretary at the time] went off to the UN General Assembly and met his Chinese opposite number, Qian Qichen, who is a sophisticated operator. Douglas set out for him in general terms what we are proposing to do. Qian doesn’t seem too fazed or cross about anything. There is a bit of a sense of so far so good, but the journey has only just begun.
Friday 9 October
Breakfast with George Shultz. He told me that when he was Secretary of State under President Reagan he had been told fairly early that he could not do this or that because the Chinese would believe that it undermined the relationship with the US. He’d gone to Reagan and said that when he was a labour lawyer, firms started to get into difficulties when the management began saying that they couldn’t possibly take a particular course of action because it might damage the relationship with the workforce. The view generally in the past has been that the UK and China have some great big relationship which we must safeguard at all costs and that Hong Kong is a tiresome aggravation. Geoffrey Howe has a ghastly metaphor about the relationship being like a priceless vase which you have to carry very carefully through the years without ever letting it slip. Truth to tell, I’m not sure that after 1997 we will have a close relationship with China at all. George Shultz was also very funny about the diplomacy of visits to Beijing. He thinks the Chinese will try to humiliate me and, if I try to stand up to them, will deliver what he calls the post-visit blast. That is, a great attack when I’m on the way to the airport or even in the aeroplane. Be prepared, he said.
Thursday 15 October
Over 40 critical articles about me during the last week in the pro-Beijing press. In addition, Lu Ping has sent a private message asking that I should make sure that I respect his face when I go to Beijing and behave properly. Why are they so alarmed, especially when all the evidence suggests that they are preparing to give me as tough a time as they can?
Monday 19 October
Edward [Llewellyn, Patten’s assistant] has found an exchange of seven telegrams in 1990 between Douglas Hurd and Qian Qichen about the election arrangements in Hong Kong. A first look doesn’t suggest that this is a real smoking gun, though I should have been told about it. There was clearly an agreement that we wouldn’t increase the number of directly elected legislators in 1995, but there were also some rather ambiguous exchanges about the composition of the election committee. It is all a little like the secret agreement on the Court of Final Appeal – done behind Hong Kong’s back, the sort of secret diplomacy which always plays to Beijing’s advantage.
Tuesday 20 October
We set off for Beijing and were met at the airport by [ambassador to China] Robin McLaren and his wife Sue McLaren and a low level Chinese official. No sign of Lu Ping. It’s no skin off my nose but this is obviously the first snub to the wicked British Governor. I headed off to the embassy to discuss how we are going to handle the next two or three days of talks. We went over the seven telegrams again with quite a bit of nervous shifting in seats by the diplomats. Sooner or later I suppose that I should have a bloody great row over this, which may make people more careful in the future. I’ve never liked shouting at officials, however.
Wednesday 21 October
With the room cleared, Lu Ping offered me the chance to take the floor. He had in front of him a written text which he left rather ominously until the end of the day. I set out my thoughts and responsibilities. I don’t have a secret agenda; I want to do the job efficiently and honourably; I believe that making some honest accommodation to people’s democratic ambitions is more likely to promote political stability; my bottom line for the 1995 elections is that they should be fair, open and accessible to the people of Hong Kong.
The ambassador said afterwards that no Chinese official would ever have heard anything like this before. I think it’s the style of what I said rather than the content that he is referring to. I don’t think I’ve been remotely rude, at least I hope not.
Thursday 22 October
If I wasn’t aware of the fact already that the Chinese communists didn’t like my proposals, I was soon subjected to what George Shultz rightly called the post-visit blast. While we were in mid-air on the way back to Hong Kong, Lu Ping gave a press conference full of threats about changing everything in 1997. Nothing was surprising but all was done with great verve. Obviously we are in for a battering over the coming weeks. Will Hong Kong’s nerve hold?
Thinking about Lu in retrospect I found myself rather puzzled. He’s obviously highly intelligent, sophisticated and charming with some civilised tastes – not least his love of classical music. But maybe because of ill-health and an unhappy family life, he obviously has a very short temper and a highly developed sense of amour propre. I guess one should also make allowance for the fact that he was brought up in Shanghai, subjected like so many other Chinese to overt racism by the dominant Europeans. I have dealt with far more dislikeable people in my life, but far more likeable Chinese ones as well.
Monday 26–Thursday 29 October
We have to deal with the fallout from the secret telegrams issue. We got approval from London to publish them. The media reaction is wholly manageable. No one has the wit to ask the killer question as to whether I had actually seen the telegrams myself before I put forward my proposals. I was able to go on repeating that of course my officials knew about the exchanges very well. I guess this will continue to be an issue with which the Chinese will beat us over the head. They are saying in their newspapers that civil servants are very nervous about what I have proposed and want a quiet life until 1997, when they will start working for a China-appointed administration. There isn’t much sign of this so far.
Thursday 5 November
The Prince of Wales arrived to stay, leaving his wife on the plane, or perhaps it’s more true to say she chose to stay on the plane. They have obviously had a wretched time being hounded by the press in South Korea.
Monday 16–Wednesday 18 November
I’ve had an absolutely crazy week in London. There were endless interviews, one of which annoys me, and is a reminder of what life is like in an open democracy. It’s with Brian Redhead on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four. I was first of all played a package put together by Humphrey Hawksley, the BBC’s man in Hong Kong, which quoted solely pro-Beijing critics. Any idea that there is support in both Legco and in the community for what I am proposing was completely ignored. Needless to say, if I had adopted a different approach, the BBC would be taking me apart for not supporting democracy. Such is life – don’t I love our public service broadcaster?
Friday 4 December
The Hang Seng has gone down by over 400 points. In fact, the market is pretty well back to where it was earlier in the year, but there’s not much comfort in that. There is a growing sense of panic and I’m taking all the blame rather than China. I’m not sleeping very well. That always happens when I’m politically worried. Chinese officials are becoming increasingly imaginative in the names they call me: sinner for a thousand years, prostitute, triple violator and more. This is less unsettling than what is happening to the markets and the steady drip of criticism from members of the business community, invariably I suspect from the ones who have foreign passports.
Thursday 24 December
One thing that cheered me up was [diplomat]William Ehrman’s account of a banquet which had been given for him after crossborder liaison talks in Guangdong. The authorities there seemed to go out of their way to tell him how sympathetic they are towards all of us in Hong Kong. In return for this, William had to chomp his way through a great feast. He ate for Britain – peacock, half a dog (which he said looked exactly like what it was), a whole snake and a bowl of cockerels’ testicles. ‘Which was the nastiest of all these dishes?’ I asked. ‘The cocks’ balls,’ he said with some feeling.
Thursday 18 February 1993
We had a telegram late last night from Douglas [Hurd] asking us to set out our bottom line so that he can let the Prime Minister know what it is. I dictated a telegram first thing this morning, saying we would be prepared to give a bit on the election committee and functional constituencies, but would need something in return to make a reality of convergence.
Monday 1 March
The Chinese clearly want the talks to be seen to be between the sovereign powers and don’t want Hong Kong to have a look in. They have a metaphor to cover this point which is either meaningless or daft – they talk about not having a three-legged stool. But I wonder whether whoever thought of this ridiculous metaphor has ever tried to sit on a two-legged stool.
Tuesday 13 April
We announced the start of the talks yesterday, noting that, as far as we were concerned, the position of Hong Kong representatives was the same as ever. Overall we came out of things pretty well. The Chinese obviously didn’t believe we actually had a bottom line. They now seem to have recognised we are serious.
Friday 8 October
The worst part of the week was a meeting today with two ghastly blokes from the bank Robert Fleming. A lot of what they’ve been saying in private has been played back to me already. They have spent a good deal of the week kowtowing to the NCNA. If they only knew how much derision this causes in the ranks of even the most hard-boiled of Chinese apparatchiks. Apparently, they have even told the Chinese that of course the UK demonstrates some of the inadequacies of democracy and that nobody in Hong Kong agrees with me about elections. What creeps.
Monday 1 November
I began the month with a deeply depressing lunch with the board of Standard Chartered Bank. They are critical of what we are doing in Hong Kong – no, not critical, really hostile. They don’t think we should be doing or saying anything which annoys Beijing. Their advice and knowledge of what is happening in Hong Kong and China seems remarkably limited and deeply and uninterestingly small-‘c’ conservative.
Friday 19 November
When will this all end? The 16th round of talks began today with the Chinese side back-pedalling fast and with no apparent embarrassment on what they promised in the last round about making progress. How are we supposed to know what their game is? The rules seem to be written by Lewis Carroll. Perhaps this is all a sophisticated negotiating tactic or, on the other hand, maybe they were just stringing us along.
Sunday 9 March 1994
Despite the row with China, I reckon that we can govern Hong Kong perfectly adequately until 1997 and lock in as many of its liberties as possible. But ultimately, after the handover, much will depend on whether the Chinese Communist Party can actually be trusted to honour ‘one country, two systems’.
Monday 11 April
We got back from the UK to a familiar agenda. A journalist from Ming Pao has been arrested in Beijing for allegedly stealing state secrets; what he has actually done is to produce some excellent and accurate reporting on the management of the Chinese economy. He will undoubtedly be locked up after the usual Chinese trial with a preordained verdict. The pity of it is that there isn’t much we can do about it apart from harrumph.
Abridged extract from The Hong Kong Diaries, by Chris Patten (Allen Lane, £30). Pre-order at the Telegraph Bookshop