Chris Patten’s appointment as Hong Kong’s last governor in 1992 marked a cultural change for the colony. His predecessors had mostly been diplomats or administrators – Patten was a senior UK politician with reforming ambitions and a flair for public relations who aroused suspicion in both Beijing and Hong Kong. Many intrigued against him. But he had one supreme advantage – the loyal backing of John Major, the prime minister, and Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, back in London.
Patten’s goal was to ensure the 1997 handover to China went as smoothly as possible, while at the same time entrenching the rule of law and trying to extend democracy. He got some of what he wanted, but it was too little and too late. There were serious ructions with China along the way, and some within Hong Kong itself, about the new airport, passport rights, civil service pensions, Vietnamese refugees and, more than anything else, Patten’s reforms. The politics, in his words, were a “snake pit”.
“What a bunch we have to deal with,” he writes in May 1995 when Chinese officials refused to meet him during their visit to the city. But the governor’s frustration with much of the business elite, anxious only to kowtow to Beijing and go on making a lot of money, was almost as great. Strained relations extended even to his more natural political allies, the Hong Kong democrats led by Martin Lee. Though on the eve of handover, Patten admits glumly: “They are good and brave people. We have let them and others down.”
Patten’s most withering comments are reserved for Sinophile diplomats in London, many of whom viewed he with disdain
Patten’s Hong Kong years have been chronicled before, not least by him, while Jonathan Dimbleby’s account of the road to 1997 was based on extensive on-the-spot access during his governorship. This might suggest that the new volume retreads familiar ground, but it is new in two major respects. The first is that the diaries themselves, kept from the time of his appointment in April 1992 to the handover just over five years later, have not been seen before and make for consistently good reading. The second is that Patten also has something powerful to say about Hong Kong today. This takes the form of a passionate polemical essay, written as a postscript to the diaries, about China’s increasingly brutal sabotage of the Hong Kong deals.
Patten brings terrific energy to his denunciation of Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the territory. He calls it “the demolition of a free society” and insists Hong Kong’s increasingly beleaguered battle for freedom is our fight too. This is true, but British colonial rule did not take such an enlightened position until the handover was imminent. Even then, Patten’s reforms were carefully calculated to pass through the colony’s executive and legislative institutions. He also assaults China’s Xi-era view that the 1984 joint declaration, which was supposed to apply until 2047, is now just a historical document of no further relevance. As Patten points out, you could say the same thing about any international treaty.
Because the 2022 polemic is much shorter than the diaries and is also more current, some readers may turn there first. But the journal entries provide a foundation for understanding why the circumspect optimism of 1997 has been so tragically confounded under Beijing’s later rule.
Patten’s most withering comments are reserved for Sinophile diplomats in London and for visiting former politicians, many of whom viewed Patten with disdain. Percy Cradock, former ambassador to Beijing and described as “working actively to scupper what we are trying to do”, is the chief villain of the piece. Ted Heath, political apologist supreme for China, is a “despicable old bore”, and Geoffrey Howe little better. James Callaghan tells Patten to avoid democratic reform and concentrate on business opportunities. Strikingly it is Margaret Thatcher, whose Toryism was a world away from Patten’s, who gets the most glowing write-up, berating local business leaders “for crawling to Beijing”. Yet Thatcher also naively expected that Chinese prosperity would bring democracy in its wake. Not yet.
Family life at Government House and at the country retreat at Fanling is entertainingly described. Visitors range from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Jack Charlton. Patten’s officials, British and Hong Kongese, are generously and warmly praised. The governor’s weight problems, tennis skills and his dogs feature regularly. In pre-Zoom days, he makes extravagant numbers of flights back to London for consultations. Though still a substantial volume, the published diaries have been significantly cut. From reading them, you would never guess how heavily invested British security and intelligence were in Hong Kong.
As the handover nears, Patten grows introspective and more bitter. “We – I – really will start to look more and more irrelevant. The days will be loud with the slap of coats turning. People will question the point of making a fuss about anything any more.” So it proved. The Pattens sailed away to Manila with Prince Charles on the Royal Yacht Britannia as soon as the union flag was lowered on 30 June 1997, “leaving Heath, Howe and Heseltine to salute the new order”.
Twenty-five years on, with the global order turning more nationalist and inward, the diaries are a witness that despite his limited achievements, it was Patten who called the outcome more accurately and more honourably than they did.
• The Hong Kong Diaries by Chris Patten is published by Penguin (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.