The Nation’s Business

Christopher Patten: a lion for all seasons

Peter C. Newman May 13 1996
The Nation’s Business

Christopher Patten: a lion for all seasons

Peter C. Newman May 13 1996

Christopher Patten: a lion for all seasons

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

The Right Honorable Christopher Francis Patten surprises. From the headlines, one expects the Hong Kong governor to be a belligerent bulldog of a Britisher, a Bond-like figure braving the wrath of Asian potentates while sipping a Singapore Sling. Instead, as I found out during an interview in Vancouver last week, the governor of Britain’s last major colony is something of a “wet.” Instead of packing a Walther PPK semiautomatic, he is armed with historical illusions, has a cowlick and watches the world through the burning eyes of a poet. He is also one of the contemporary world’s most remarkable politicians, masquerading as a bureaucrat. Definitely a fellow to go tiger hunting with.

Patten has that rare quality, not uncommon among his fellow grads of Oxford’s Balliol College, of knowing that politics is a matter of macro-decisions, of measuring luck against ambition and compassion against expediency. He is a man of conscience who understands that being incautious, as he has had occasion to be in dealing with Beijing’s shock troops, can be a necessary evil.

When I put forward the generalization that while the Soviet Union seems constantly to be placing economics behind politics, while China has, until the repossession of Hong Kong, reversed the order—animating the business sector, while leaving ideology to marinate in its own juices—Patten replies: “You can’t separate politics from economics for very long. In the case of Hong Kong, the relationship between economic success and its way of life is intimate, with the latter helping to sustain the former.

What makes for the success of the city are the economic policies we pursue that have given the refugee community the opportunity to excel. There is also the framework within which Adam Smith or Alexis de Tocqueville would have been familiar: the rule of law, and a fairly corruption-free government, plus an impartial civil service. It has never struck me as being entirely coincidental that Hong Kong not only has the most open market in Asia, but one of the freest presses in the region. So I think it’s a very Leninist notion that you can distinguish between economics and politics.”

To the proposition that, by harassing him and his garrison, China may be acting against its own self-interest (since 64 per cent of the capital flowing into the Communist state originates in Hong Kong), the governor points out that there is about $27 billion in Chinese investment in the island colony at the moment; that its gross domestic product represents 21 per cent of China’s; and that Hong Kong’s six million residents have produced one-fifth the wealth of China’s 1.2 billion people. (Since the joint declaration was signed by London and Beijing in 1984 setting terms for the leased colony’s return to China on July 1,1997, Hong Kong’s GDP has increased an astounding 97 per cent and the colony is current-

The Hong Kong governor is a man comfortable in his skin who never depends on the kindness of strangers

ly enjoying its 35th year of uninterrupted growth.) “There is indeed every reason for the Communists not to intervene in Hong Kong’s success,” says Patten, “and that’s not going to change after the transfer in 1997. The question mark is whether they understand this. One of the real difficulties we have is that they’re so reluctant to be relaxed about Hong Kong, though it in no way represents a threat. Its politics are incredibly moderate and the vast majority of the people want the transition to be successful—so all the Chinese have to do is stand back and let it happen.”

One of the major problems will be dealing with the 600,000 Hong Kong citizens who have claimed foreign passports, since China does not recognize dual citizenship. Beijing insists that anyone in this position can exercise “the right of abode” in the post-1997 city, but must give up their right of consular protection from their second homeland.

The governor makes the point that it was not he who introduced democracy to Hong Kong, but that this transition has been evolving for some time. “Just because Asians embrace some of the values of pluralism doesn’t mean that they become less Asian,” he emphasizes. “Japan isn’t less Asian just because it’s a free and open society.”

Then we come to conscience, to the stone truth that in handing Hong Kong over to the Chinese, Britain is putting at risk those refugees who sought sanctuary there from communism. Surely, I ventured, this is a betrayal of millions of innocents who escaped from the real or imagined terrors of the mainland and have ever since worked hard to stay out of the Communists’ grasp.

“The joint declaration is uniquely difficult for both China and Britain,” the governor carefully replies. “China is required to comprehend the nature of a free society—because that’s what it has guaranteed will survive— and that will certainly be challenging. Britain is challenged because we’re used to ending empire by making former colonies democratic and independent. That’s never been an option because of the lease in Hong Kong, but it does scratch away at our sensibilities, and makes it particularly important for us to be able to say when we depart that we did everything to bolster the self-confidence of Hong Kong and the values of freedom.”

Patten’s tenure has only 131/2 months to run—and after that? After that, according to the rumors, the governor will succeed John Major as leader of Britain’s Conservative party—which may well by then be out of power. Politics is never simple or predictable, but the governor is an unusual man, not destined for ordinary fates. He has served the Tories for 32 years in various senior capacities, and his civility under fire could well turn the Hong Kong post into a political launching pad.

If that happens, Chris Patten could become the perfect prime minister: a man eminently comfortable in his skin, who never depends on the kindness of strangers.