Last Exit

Murray Sayle

  • The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong by Jonathan Dimbleby
    Little, Brown, 461 pp, £22.50, July 1997, ISBN 0 316 64018 2
  • In Pursuit of British Interests: Reflections on Foreign Policy under Margaret Thatcher and John Major by Percy Cradock
    Murray, 228 pp, £18.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 7195 5464 0
  • Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule: The Economic and Political Implications of Reversion edited by Warren Cohen and Li Zhao
    Cambridge, 255 pp, £45.00, August 1997, ISBN 0 521 62158 5
  • The Hong Kong Advantage by Michael Enright, Edith Scott and David Dodwell
    Oxford, 369 pp, £20.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 19 590322 6

Sovereignty: supremacy in respect of power, domination or rank; supreme dominion, authority, or rule.

OED

Without conflicting mental reservations, international agreements would be impossible.

French diplomatic maxim

Christopher Francis Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor, famously wept just before he left aboard the royal yacht Britannia at midnight on 30 June, while sirens whooped and rockets soared over Asia’s most stunning harbour. Tears of joy? Relief? Despair? The book he is reportedly writing in his French retreat may tell us; meanwhile we can only guess. The peaceful transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China – all things considered, the unlikeliest end any empire ever had – went off without a visible hitch. Almost every day of his five-year term, Patten did battle, as he saw it, on Hong Kong’s behalf. Towards the end he was all but alone, shunned by those he had, as he saw it, tried to protect, on the issue he thought most important: democracy. When he arrived, Hong Kong had a partly elected legislature; after he left, it had to start all over again. Under Chinese sovereignty (see above) there may not be a Patten Square or statue any time soon; but the one quasi-democratic election he did manage to hold, in 1995, could conceivably figure in Chinese history as a harbinger of things to come. And, while he was away, the Conservative Party, whose Pyrrhic victory he stage-managed five years earlier, had suffered its worst defeat this century. A swirl of emotions, complex enough to make even a hardened politician cry, may best explain the last governor’s dampened cheeks.

For the beaming new rulers of Hong Kong, China’s President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, 1 July 1997 was set beside the sacred dates of 10 October 1911, when the first Chinese Republic was proclaimed, and 1 October 1949, when China’s new five-starred red flag was hoisted on Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing, and Chairman Mao exulted: ‘China has stood up!’ Now, for the first time in 156 years, no alien flag, no foreign soldier, no uninvited official defiles any part of the Chinese motherland, with the exception of nearby Macao, but that tiny Portuguese enclave is due to follow Hong Kong before the century’s end. The last of the ‘unequal treaties’ forced on China in its years of sorrow has been torn up, the last patch of stolen Chinese earth reclaimed. In Britain, the few who knew much about Hong Kong were glad to be honourably shot of an accidental, unrewarding and possibly dangerous responsibility. For China, the reversion continued a change of fortune without precedent in its history. Since Mao, the worst ruler China ever had, died in 1976, China has indeed stood up, reversed the decline of centuries, more than doubled its income and opened up to the world, relatively speaking. Even a guess at Hong Kong’s future involves gauging the political and psychological capital China’s rulers have invested in the success of the ‘one country, two systems’ on which it is premised – all the more since the appeal of Communism is fast withering away, leaving patriotism and prosperity as China’s only unifying principles.

The way the famous Hong Kong lease was ended supports this view. It must be one of the flimsiest deeds ever to have been honoured exactly on its due date. In 1898, when the alien Qing (or Manchu) dynasty was at its last gasp, a British army captain decided that Hong Kong needed strategic depth for defence against local trouble makers. By the Second Convention of Peking, the disintegrating dynasty agreed to lease what Hong Kong still calls its New Territories to the British for 99 years. Why a lease? Because no one dreamed that the territories would one day make up more than nine-tenths of a city of more than six million people, and the British feared that outright annexation would provoke rival empires to counter-annexations, touching off World War One in Kow-loon instead of Sarajevo. Why 99 years? Because a lease needs a date. Why did the Qing dynasty sign? Because its last hope lay in getting foreign help against its own people, and it was ready to sign anything. The lease was never ratified, no rent was ever paid, and China gained nothing tangible from it – except that, by expiring, it has brought the rest of Hong Kong, ‘ceded in perpetuity’, back to mother China.

That lion-hearted Liberal William Ewart Gladstone, who died while he was trying to solve the Irish Question, said of the First Opium War, which ended with Hong Kong under British rule: ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of.’ A comic classic, Foreign Mud by Maurice Collis, tells the story, but in China the Opium War is not funny. The veteran director Xie Jin’s new $12 million blockbuster (the budget was raised in Shanghai) modelled, he says, on Schindler’s List, eulogises Beijing’s heroic commissioner, Lin Zexu, who provoked the British to war by burning 1250 tons of Indian opium smuggled into Canton, mostly by the Scottish firm Jardine Matheson (still, rather more respectably, active in Hong Kong). Commissioner Lin asked, in a personal letter to Queen Victoria bristling with Chinese officialdom’s abiding suspicion of British good faith: ‘We have heard that in your honourable barbarian country the people are not permitted to inhale the drug. If it is so harmful, how can seeking profit by exposing others to its evil power be reconciled with the decrees of heaven?’ Her Majesty had no reply; but holding the high moral ground did not protect Qing China from the Royal Navy, which sank the Emperor’s fleet of war junks with only one British sailor being grazed by a stray Chinese cannonball, and followed up by blockading Beijing. Adopting the ancient Confucian policy of soothing and pacifying, the reigning emperor, Dao Guang, quickly ceded a barren offshore island which happened to enclose one of the world’s finest deep-water anchorages, now ambiguously called Hong Kong (‘Fragrant Harbour’), and opened five other ‘treaty ports’ to the British, who were soon followed by other foreigners demanding similar concessions. British Hong Kong’s first business was warehousing illicit opium. Ever since, Hong Kong has been a centre for activities of which Beijing has, one way or another, disapproved, but which have had strong local support – including the revolution of 10 October 1911.

When I was based there in the early Seventies, covering the bitter end in Vietnam, Hong Kong was a tranquil haven seemingly far removed from the wars that were (as some still are) dividing Asia – not least the Chinese civil war, which continues in rhetorical form to this day. Yet I never saw the smallest conflict on Hong Kong’s crowded streets. The Bank of China’s tower carried a giant sign, ‘A Long, Long Life to Chairman Mao!’, often used as a backdrop for photos of the Hong Kong Cricket Club. Chinese Communist sympathisers ran their own schools and department stores, where the Little Red Book was sold over the counter (it no longer is anywhere in China). Any Chinese compatriot could easily lead the complete Communist life in Hong Kong; although some un-British things were just not on – no dog meat restaurants, for instance, and gambling restricted to the Jockey Club and the Stock Exchange – contact with British imperialists could be minimal. The same tolerance extended to supporters of the Kuomintang, the Nationalists who had found sanctuary in Taiwan behind the protection of the US Seventh Fleet. They, too, displayed their flag, in a district by the vintage colonialist name of Rennie’s Mills. Both sides openly ran newspapers and silently had swarms of intelligence agents in place. When I further learnt that every duck, every pig, every bag of cement needed to keep Hong Kong going was purchased, for hard currency, from ‘the Mainland’, as China is still called (although most of Hong Kong is on the mainland, too), and that almost all Hong Kong’s fresh water comes from reservoirs far away in China, I realised that I was witnessing a political miracle, or more likely, as I soon divined, a tacit deal. Hong Kong was not defended by the few strands of barbed wire along the border, or by the four battalions of British troops, three of them usually Gurkha mercenaries, available to oppose China’s army of 2.5 million, or by a onesided treaty which no post-Qing Chinese government has ever recognised. The economies of China and Hong Kong were even then closely entwined (as those of China and Taiwan have never been). British pomp and circumstance camouflaged a simple truth: Hong Kong was there by Chinese permission, because it suited Chinese purposes; a state of affairs we might call two systems (for show), one country (in all the essentials).

This had come about, not through vile Occidental cunning, but by chance. When the Governor, Sir Mark Young, emerged from a Japanese prison camp in 1945, he brought out a plan to empower Hong Kong to run some of its own affairs, on a basis of one ratepayer (literate in English or Chinese), one vote, as part of the leisurely run-up to self-rule that was normal in all British colonies. His plan got little local support. Few Chinese businessmen saw any need to share even municipal government with rickshaw-pullers. Hong Kong’s British (mostly Scottish) tycoons have never lost their buccaneering, we-know-how-to-operate-out-East ways. Young’s modest plan for democracy mildewed in tropical pigeon-holes, and anyway, over all such schemes hung the lease. Then, after the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, more than two million destitute, mostly illiterate, refugees surged irresistibly into Hong Kong. Surprisingly, no Red Army soldiers followed. To feed and house the uninvited newcomers halfway decently, and find them jobs in new light industries was a splendid achievement; but it brought the risk that, if open politics were permitted, Hong Kong would split ungovernably along Chinese civil war lines, with one side’s backers holding the tap on Hong Kong’s daily water supply. Two harsh-looking Hong Kong laws, the Public Order Ordinance and the Societies Ordinance, forbade unauthorised demonstrations or ‘foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region’, ‘foreign’ discreetly left undefined. The actual solution was to permit no politics at all, this with the tacit consent of the Communist authorities in nearby Guangzhou (Canton). Only once, in July 1967, when civil government had all but collapsed in China, was there serious violence in Hong Kong, with four dead in Maoist riots in Kowloon – an astonishingly peaceful record, considering Hong Kong’s exposed position. An unwritten deal – brokered at the local level by the many Chinese clans of Hos and Wus living on both sides of the border – is the likeliest, indeed the only possible explanation. Does it still hold? Will the Chinese Communist Party now be permitted to operate in Hong Kong? Kenneth Lieberthal raises this interesting question in his contribution to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule, but has no ready answer.

Hong Kong’s British governors were all appointed by, and solely responsible to, the government in London, but they were assisted by what had become the most experienced team of colonial administrators in the world, under the surveillance of Asia’s biggest press corps, local and foreign (the latter a consequence of the cheap, reliable communications created by the British Empire) and ultimately subject, on legal issues, to appeals to the Privy Council in London. With economics separated from electoral politics – there were none – Hong Kong closely resembled the one-party states with strong bureaucracies that were staging economic miracles else where in Asia. The Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s formal decision-endorsing body, a mix of government officials and governor-nominated merchants, clergymen and prominent citizens, looked, and was, wildly undemocratic to anyone who regards the democratic nation-state as the norm, but it has had many historical parallels. Another great trading and manufacturing city, Venice, was ruled for a thousand years by a council of rich merchant families listed in a Golden Book, with no input allowed from immigrants, transients or gondola-polers. Venice pioneered one of Hong Kong’s most effective administrative devices, the Independent Commission against Corruption, which solicits and follows up anonymous tip-offs by mail and telephone; Venetians were motivated by cash rewards to slip the names of bribe-takers into the mouth of a stone lion located (for privacy) behind St Mark’s Cathedral. And, like Venice, a major source of economic strength lies not in Hong Kong’s limited area, or even in its diligent people, but in its role at the hub of a commercial empire – which, in Hong Kong’s case, consists of 50 million Overseas Chinese, reckoned the fourth or fifth largest financial power on earth. But Venice had impregnable defences; Hong Kong an unsigned lease.

British/Chinese Hong Kong was a city of dreams, the best of all worlds. It enjoyed both civil rights and economic freedoms – the rarest Asian combination – low taxes, minimal crime, near full employment and a per-capita income last year of US $26,000, higher than that of Britain, Australia or Canada. Under the discreet Union Jack and omnipresent portrait of the Queen (governors, mostly former diplomats, kept a low profile) it was as stable, secure and friendly to money-making as any place on earth has ever been. There was no audible call for local self-rule, a strange idea to most of its Chinese residents anyway. The price for all this has been the lease, with its dubious validity and precise date, along with a measure of political apathy and naivety – not an ideal preparation for the problems that were bound to surface when it expired on 30 June.

The problem of the lease was first raised with China by the most far-sighted of Hong Kong’s governors, Sir Murray (now Lord) Maclehose, during the first visit ever by a governor to Beijing in March 1979. The tall, dignified Scot had seen a vision of the Hong Kong that was to be; under his aegis, the first harbour tunnel and subway line were begun, and the new airport, still unfinished, was planned. Hard-headed bankers declined to lend for these, or bolder schemes in the New Territories into which Hong Kong was inexorably expanding, with only a few years left on the dwindling lease. Sir Murray broached some possibilities: an extension of the lease or continued British administration under nominal Chinese sovereignty, as in Macau. Deng Xiaoping, China’s new strongman, was then busy steering China towards ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, actually a form of state-directed capitalism, with the revitalised Chinese Communist Party, which Mao had tried to destroy, as its managing élite. Deng was polite, but firm – China intended to recover all Hong Kong when the lease expired. However, Deng added, investors should ‘set their hearts at ease’. Hong Kong’s capitalist system was to remain unchanged in the future.

The falklands war concentrated British minds. As Goose Green had shown, defence is an inescapable duty of sovereignty. Where the mighty United States could not defend South Vietnam, Britain had neither the hope nor the heart for tiny Hong Kong. No British governmenthas ever intended to offer refuge to more than a few thousand of Hong Kong’s millions. If China would not extend a lease that was historically identified in Chinese minds with her greatest humiliation, and saw no reason to grant independence, Singapore-style, to a colonised corner of the motherland, then all that was left was to discover what China would offer Britain for returning Hong Kong to the landlord (with his hand on the water-tap) in good working order. In Hong Kong, however, polls indicated than anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of the population, never fully informed of the silent deal on which everything rested, preferred die indefinite continuation of the status quo – and who would not, with Hong Kong wages twenty times China’s? Britain thus faced die distasteful prospect of returning its accidental Asian wards to the mother-land at gunpoint. What would have been the notably shameful end of an empire was obviated by Deng Xiaoping, who unveiled his radical sounding solution to Margaret Thatcher, on her visit to Beijing in September 1982: ‘one country, two systems, for at least fifty years.’

Mrs Thatcher later called it ‘an ingenious idea’. Deng Xiaoping claimed it as an improbable mix of ‘dialectical Marxism and historical materialism’. Originally it had had nothing to do with Hong Kong, but was devised by Deng as a way of persuading die losers of the Chinese civil war, holed up on Taiwan, to accept the idea of nominal reunification with Communist China, and to encourage me United States, then aligned with China against the Soviet Union, to go along, thus making possible Jimmy Carter’s normalisation of relations with Beijing in 1979. (With the end of the Soviet Union, American attitudes towards China have noticeably hardened, but not nearly enough to offer Hong Kong anything more than a purely verbal commitment.) In the harsh light of day, ‘one country, two systems’ sounds like witchcraft – an attempt to reconcile nationalism with ideology, the antagonists behind every war of our century, or even more ambitiously, to heal a basic conflict in human nature, between the head, the deviser of political systems, and the heart, responding to the call of flag and fatherland. As such, it looks unworkable – until we recall that it has been quietly cosseting Hong Kong for 48 years, and already has one public success to its credit, allowing Britain to get out of Hong Kong with dignity, if not, some may argue, with the maximum of honour. After two years of haggling, it became the basis of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, on 19 December 1984, and, after six more years of tea-drinking, the core of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, which was adopted on 4 April 1990 by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, and is now – Governor Patten’s end-of-empire initiatives notwithstanding – Hong Kong’s written legal code.

‘Nations that have no conflicting interests,’ the Swiss-American scholar Fred Iklé has written, ‘have nothing to negotiate about. And nations mat have no common interests have nothing to negotiate for.’ In Hong Kong’s case the two sets of interests were both asymmetrical and asynchronous. Britain’s lay in getting out as honourably as possible, preferably in a way that would pass muster with the British Parliament; China’s in a peaceful takeover, with an eye on Taiwan. Britain was thus to be out of the deal before China entered. No one spoke specifically for the people of Hong Kong, who were being handed over, there being no machinery in place to consult them, or, from the Chinese viewpoint, any need for consultation; 98 per cent ethnic Chinese, they were residents of a soon-to-be-recovered part of the motherland. When Governor Sir Edward You de raised Hong Kong’s qualms, he was frostily informed that he was in Beijing merely as a member of the British delegation. The real aim of the negotiators was a near-impossibility: to put on paper, for public scrutiny, me unwritten deal that had protected Hong Kong since 1949, but without the façade of Queen and Empire, which both sides were agreed must go. The resulting Joint Declaration and its sequel, the Basic Law, are predictably a mass of evasions, unresolved contradictions and undefined euphemisms, but no more so than most international treaties. Sir Percy Cradock, then Ambassador in Beijing and the main British negotiator, writes in his frankly titled memoir In Pursuit of British Interests: ‘The result was a treaty ensuring tile colony the most complete protection possible in the real world for at least 50 years after the hand-over. It was generally acknowledged that no better solution could have been achieved.’ Sir Percy’s quiet self-satisfaction and perfect Chinese infuriate his critics, ex-Governor Patten among them, and possibly by design; but, surveying the cards that Britain and China held at that time, no one has specified how they could have done any better.

That master of the slogan, Deng Xiaoping, compressed his offer to Hong Kong into 20 Chinese characters, or three principles: maintaining prosperity; Hong Kong people running Hong Kong; and preserving Hong Kong’s ‘capitalist lifestyle’ – by which Deng could only have meant the social and political system in place in 1984, the autocratic rule of an appointed governor, assisted by officials and local notables. Power to enact, amend and interpret the Basic Law rests with the National People’s Congress in Beijing, where Hong Kong’s 6.3 million residents will be represented without contested elections on the same basis as China’s other 1.3 billion, a nominated droplet in a regimented ocean. The promised ‘high degree of autonomy’ (gangren zhigang, or ‘self-administration’) is plainly not, in any translation, an offer of unqualified independence, which the agreement certainly does not promise: the last thing Beijing wants, or is likely to allow, is another Taiwan. Beijing appoints the chief executive who replaces the British governor, and all his top civil servants, ‘on the basis of the results of elections or’ – slippery alternative – ‘consultations to be held locally’. These potentates are supposed to be ‘accountable’, eventually, to an all-elected Hong Kong legislature – reassuring words which, in the context, mean nothing: the legislators cannot dismiss or replace them. Hong Kong is promised rights and freedoms which sound democratic (as is China by its 1982 Constitution) but nowhere is it spelled out who enforces them, so it can only, in the end, be Beijing. No real future role is given to Britain, and anyway that bleak word ‘sovereignty’ rules out any foreign supervision of China on its own territory, which now in-contestably includes Hong Kong.

Pointedly vague on politics, the Sino-British agreement is lawyerproof on commercial dealings, land leases and property rights, all guaranteed for 50 years. Why 50? Unexplained, but presumably because 49 years is about the minimum any bank will lend for building or public works, plus a year to look tidy. The time-frame shows the true common interest sealed by the agreement: business is short-term, but rights and freedoms are, or should be (as we fervently hope about our own), for ever. After it was thrashed out, but before it was signed, the agreement was subject to tragi-comical ‘consultations’, held by a British professor and a Hong Kong Chinese judge in the neutral ambience of the Hong Kong Hilton. The Hong Kong Cotton Bleaching and Dyeing Free Workers’ Union, one among many sporting clubs, trade unions, welfare groups, choirs and craft guilds who gave opinions, submitted that the question should be put to a referendum. But of course, it was not. No poll had then identified any majority in Hong Kong in favour of ‘rejoining the motherland’ – if so, why did they flee in the first place? – but raising this issue, even today, could be awkward for Britain and China, the only parties to the 1984 Joint Declaration. History did not stop in May 1985, however. Early on 4 June 1989, the China’s People’s Liberation Army opened fire on civilian demonstrators in or near Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, more or less under the lenses of 400 TV crews and 2000 news-hungry journalists from around the world. Three years later, in July 1992, the newly appointed Governor Patten arrived to take command in Hong Kong. These two events shaped the British colony’s last days, and make our best guide to the possible future of what is now referred to as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, HKSAR, of the People’s Republic of China.

No satisfactory account of the Tiananmen ‘massacre’ or ‘incident’ – it depends who’s talking – has appeared, or is likely to, until more is known of what went on inside the Beijing leadership. Early reports were wildly exaggerated, or plain wrong, but enough ugly truth remained to traumatise Hong Kong. Estimates of the dead have settled between 364, given by the Beijing authorities, and ‘400 to 800’ cited by the New York Times: no great multitude, compared with the 30 million or so dead in Mao-made famines and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, but those disasters were not shown, live, on the world’s TV. The Beijing shooting marked the climax of seven weeks of student-led demonstrations, all freely reported on national and international TV news. Unhindered by the conciliatory overtures of the Beijing city authorities (the People’s Liberation Army supplied quilts, and the Beijing municipality set up portable toilets), the first demonstrators from Beijing schools and universities, mourning the death of the popular Party Secretary Hu Yaobang, were joined by students from all over China travelling free on the trains, by Beijing residents who were not students, and finally, by more demonstrators who had arrived from Hong Kong bringing tents, bedding, food and money. Tiananmen Square came to look like a non-stop political meeting and camp-out, complete with a student-made styrofoam replica of the Statue of Liberty, modelled on a poster at the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. An American magazine quoted a student: ‘We want democracy. We are not exactly sure what it is, but we want it’ – a cry that has resounded in China throughout this century.

The Tiananmen demonstrators raised unreal hopes, as well as immense sympathy, in Hong Kong, where a million people marched and collected money in their support. Authoritarian regimes were collapsing or in trouble all over the world; perhaps by some miracle China was about to overthrow its Communist rulers and become a giant Hong Kong. This was optimistic, to say the least. Behind their rag-day antics, the students had some real grievances, political and academic. But these had coalesced with non-academic dissatisfactions, much broader and deeper, grounded in the harsh economics of daily life in China’s mushrooming cities. In 1987, according to Immanuel Hsü of the University of California, ‘an average worker’s family spent 35 to 45 per cent of its income on food and another 25 to 35 per cent on other necessities. There was little left to meet all the inevitable exigencies of life. Frustration gave rise to anxiety, selfishness, resentment and rudeness. Public ethics sank to the point of disintegration.’ Deng’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, launched a decade earlier, had created urban chaos, as investment surged and slowed and waves of surplus farmers invaded the cities looking for work. The regime had made a classic miscalculation, to be repeated in many formerly Communist countries. Foreign capital – $3.5 billion from the US alone – and over-ambitious public investment had generated huge demand, but the ‘iron armchair’ bureaucrats of China’s basic industries, still state-controlled, failed to increase production. The result was too much money chasing too few goods, rampant inflation and mass corruption – the ever-explosive mix of primitive, semi-criminal capitalism and a decadent sham socialism.

No alternative regime that could address these evils was waiting in the dormitories of Beijing University. The democratic credentials of the student demonstrators, as opposed to their slogans, were thin. Wu’er Kaixi, then 21, calling himself ‘Leader of the Tiananmen Uprising’, demanded on state TV that China’s ‘guilty leaders’ be ‘tried before the people’ – that is, the demonstrators – whose own leaders’ internecine purges over fine points of doctrine, military titles, bodyguards, and lack of democratic procedures were wholly Maoist in method and inspiration, if not, perhaps, in intention. Chai Ling, aged 20, the self-appointed ‘Commander of the Tiananmen Guard’, confided to American television in a long, tearful interview just before the crackdown: ‘I feel so sad, because how can I tell them’ – her student followers – ‘that what we actually are hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the Government is ready to brazenly butcher the people?’ (Chai Ling, who was in Hong Kong in June, was long out of harm’s way when her hoped-for butchery finally began; so was Wu’er Kaixi, who recently made a flashy day-trip to China from Macao.) These are totalitarian, notdemocratictactics. A teacher on a train between Shanghai and Beijing (where he had gone to rescue his pupils) told me at the time: ‘I don’t approve of what our government did. But I don’t approve what the students did either.’ In the end, the students and their supporters were persuaded to leave the square by the Taiwan-born pop singer Hu Dejian, who later said flatly: ‘No one was killed in Tiananmen Square.’ Yet, early next morning, hundreds were shot down in the streets nearby.

Why did the Chinese military stage this apparently pointless bloodbath, with the deadlock in the square already ended? There are many theories: a local commander panicked; the PLA were avenging dead comrades (perhaps a dozen soldiers had been disarmed, beaten up and some killed, in previous days) or thought they were being fired on; Tiananmen Square was traditionally privileged for demonstrators, but the streets around it were not; the regime sought to deter future dissent; it feared a breakdown of public order throughout China; it thought it was suppressing a Maoist uprising. Deng Xiaoping’s wistful comment – ‘it was inevitable, and independent of man’s will’ – and the vacillation that preceded it were confessions of incompetence, of inept policies that created demands which the regime could neither satisfy nor efficiently suppress. Breakneck, uneven economic growth, corruption, lip-service paid to a moribund Communism – all the basic causes of Tiananmen – are growing. How will Beijing, now without Deng’s long experience, react to some new crisis, one that may involve Hong Kong? Tiananmen, in any case, did nothing to alter China’s landlord-tenant relationship with Britain in Hong Kong. If anything, it confirmed British determination to get out on the due date.

The Beijing shootings traumatised Hong Kong, however, and produced the nearest it has had to a tribune of the people: Martin Lee, now 59, the son of a Kuomintang general who fled to Hong Kong, rather than Taiwan, in 1949. The younger Lee, trained in Lincoln’s Inn, became a leader of the Hong Kong Bar, a member of the Legislative Council, and of the Basic Law Drafting Committee which had been set up to prepare what is now Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Lee tore up his copy of the draft at a huge Hong Kong protest against the Beijing killings and was thereupon expelled from the Drafting Committee as a ‘subversive’. Soon afterwards Lee became one of the founders of the Democratic Party, the first to demand self-rule for Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Government itself adopted a Bill of Rights in June 1991, despite protests from Beijing, which pointed out that Britain itself has none. The last governor, arriving on 9 July 1992, soon began to sound very much like Lee.

Jonathan dimbleby’s The Last Governor makes brisk, almost effortless reading for a book on a complex subject. This child’s-guide effect is achieved by a simple moral scheme, avoiding analytic subtleties and conflicts of principle. Claiming Patten as a friend, Dimbleby presents him as a man of blameless motives who is deceived, lied to and betrayed by an ever-expanding cast of appeasers, hypocrites and collaborators ‘kow-towing’ to the unchanging forces of evil in Beijing, usually for vilely selfish reasons. Little scope is left for the possibility of honest disagreement, and Dimbleby’s tone is one of impatience – an impatience which Patten, if he is quoted correctly, seems to share: the Governor speaks freely of ‘nutters’, ‘wankers’ and (in a 1993 New Yorker profile) ‘massive and brute irrationality’. Even Patten’s barrister wife, Lavender, calls the Chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank a ‘bloody traitor’ when no one but Dimbleby, equipped with his tape-recorder, is listening. This is not the approach of a history book, but of a morality play, a melodrama or – their modern successor – the recycled script of a TV series. Dimbleby’s BBC five-parter of the same name, shown in Britain after the handover (and on cable in Hong Kong) was certainly a breakthrough for TV. Patten, who seems to have accepted Dimbleby’s electronic eavesdropping even before he took up his post in Hong Kong, is of a generation and culture brought up on the power of TV’s seductive simplifications: if baulked by the Foreign Office, he tells Dimbleby, ‘I’ll do what I’ve always done; which is to take the first opportunity in front of a television camera to set out my views.’ Like TV, the book lacks index or footnotes; like a bestseller of royal secrets, it cites ‘friends’ and ‘members of the Governor’s team’ as sources. Whether the story is told as Patten saw it is unclear. Dimbleby wisely disclaims any special knowledge of Hong Kong, China or the Communist regime, whom he refers to as ‘the butchers of Beijing’ or the ‘Chinese gerontocracy’. But alongside Dimbleby’s liking for Patten, shared by most of those who have met him, it seems, must be set his account of the Governor’s mistaken political judgment – Dimbleby calls it ‘a form of intellectual schizophrenia’, which sounds even less charitable – and the ultimate failure of his plans.

Chris Patten was not the obvious choice for the last governor of Hong Kong. A clever scholarship boy of Irish ancestry who grew up in West London, he shares with John Major a modest show-business background – his father published a pop hit, ‘She Wears Red Feathers and a Hooly Hooly Skirt’. ‘We were low-to-lower middle class. I can describe these gradations with laserlike accuracy,’ Patten told his New Yorker interviewer. Patten, alas, brought no matching insights into China to his job in Hong Kong. At Oxford he read history (medieval European, not, perhaps, the ideal introduction to the Confucian East), got a good second, went to the US on another scholarship and worked on a New York mayoral campaign. He has plied the profession of politics ever since, first in the Conservative Party’s research department, becoming director in 1974, then as Mrs Thatcher’s speechwriter. After winning the marginal seat of Bath in 1979, he ascended the ladder to cabinet rank and in 1989, as Secretary of State for the Environment, took charge of steering Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax into law. When the universally detested tax and Eurobickering undermined her leadership, Patten joined the rebels, and as Chairman of the Party, directed the 1992 election, the ‘impossible’ victory that kept the Conservatives in power for five more years of squabbling and back-stabbing.

Patten was not among them. The electors of Bath remembered the poll tax and voted for the Liberal Democrats. Foreseeing the outcome, Major had already offered Patten the governorship of Hong Kong or a cabinet post, the latter either via the Lords or a safe Tory seat. ‘He’d have liked me to stay around, but he recognised that Hong Kong was a big job ... [and that] without being too vain, I sort of fitted the bill,’ Patten told Dimbleby; what Major and his Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd had in mind for the transition, Dimbleby quotes Hurd as saying, was a politician ‘in tune with the world of Westminster and the British media; someone who could operate in Hong Kong in a more political way than had been traditional, finding allies and supporters in a way which a traditional governor had no need to do.’ Dimbleby adds, by way of rumour, that Major and Hurd regarded the outgoing governor, Sir David Wilson (who was sacked to make way for Patten), ‘as one of the principal advocates of the “appeasement” of China, an approach which they believed could no longer be sustained after the atrocity of Tiananmen Square in June 1989’. But, while he avoids saying that Patten was sent to Hong Kong to stage a confrontation with China for both international and British domestic reasons, the implication is clear. No one in Hong Kong was consulted on his appointment, or on what he planned to do there.

The new governor set about wooing support in Hong Kong much as he had in Bath, with televised shirt-sleeved ‘walkabouts’, hand-shaking and baby-kissing, gestures no previous Hong Kong governor had thought seemly or necessary. In October 1992 – eight weeks after his arrival – he announced his newly devised policy to the Legislative Council, whose composition was its main target. Of the 60-member Council, 21 were then chosen by ‘functional constituencies’, a euphemism for the business élite. Patten proposed to add nine new constituencies, and to extend the voting for these to almost everyone who worked in Hong Kong, some 2.7 million people. He further proposed that a committee of elected officials should choose ten more Council members. While these changes did not make Hong Kong a functioning democracy – Patten, for one, had not recently been elected by anyone, as he often pointed out – they were, possibly, steps in that direction. ‘Democracy,’ he said, somewhat dubiously, ‘is more than just a philosophical ideal. It is an essential element in the pursuit of economic progress.’ Inspiring as these words may be, they explain neither Hong Kong’s own stunning progress, nor that of the Asian economies generally. From that moment, the tycoons of Hong Kong, British and Chinese, began (with only one or two exceptions) to distance themselves from Patten, incurring the scorn of Dimbleby in his book, and of Patten to Dimbleby’s friendly camera.

The real difficulty, however, was with China. The Joint Declaration and Basic Law – the products, Dimbleby charges, of ‘the Cradock doctrine of secret diplomacy’, as indeed they were, or they would never have been signed at all – called for a ‘smooth transition’, its details to be settled by a Sino-British Joint Liaison Group. This body had settled on the metaphor of a ‘through train’: the Legislative Council to be partly elected, partly appointed in September 1995, the last under British rule, was to continue in office after the handover last July. The Joint Liaison Group did not approve Patten’s changes. While, legally speaking, they were probably within the letter of the ambiguously drafted Basic Law, which neglected to specify how the archaic functional seats were to be filled, they were plainly outside its spirit of ‘convergence’, that is, of the comfortable transition from one less-than-democratic regime to another. If China rejected Patten’s changes and cancelled the ‘through train’, as they threatened to do, then what would have been achieved by holding out unrealisable hopes? Soy-seasoned Old China Hand Percy Cradock wrote to the Times: ‘The Chinese have said that if the proposals are implemented they will dismantle the present legislature and set up their own in 1997. The result will be a more repressive system ... If we are sure they are bluffing, well and good. If we believe, as I do, that they are serious, that is a different matter.’

Infuriatingly, Cradock was as usual right – the Chinese weren’t bluffing – although, as things have so far turned out, he was too pessimistic about the repressive nature of the HKSAR’s regime-to-be. Patten argued into Dimbleby’s tape-recorder that he faced a difficult choice, caught between Beijing’s rejection of his extended franchise and Hong Kong activists demanding more democracy: ‘I could have had hunger-strikes and people chained to railings and people resigning from the Legislative Council and forcing by-elections and political turmoil of that sort without any great difficulty at all if I’d simply gone along with whatever China had wanted.’ The enabling legislation duly passed the Legislative Council, the governor-appointed officials voting in favour, and the franchise was briefly widened. Patten was denounced by Beijing as an ‘eternally unpardonable criminal’ and – the description he preferred – a ‘triple violator’ (of the Joint Agreement). His augmented-franchise elections were held on 17 September 1995. Martin Lee’s Democratic Party won 16 of the 20 directly elected seats – thus becoming the biggest party in the Council – and 65 per cent of the votes cast.

The turnout, however, was only 35.79 per cent, three points less than in the first Hong Kong election of 1991. In Hong Kong under Chinese Rule, a heavily footnoted academic symposium, Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong estimates that only 21 or 22 per cent of those qualified actually registered and voted. ‘The Democratic Party probably does not have more than 200 to 300 active members, nor does it plan to develop into a mass party – hence, its heavy dependence on the media to maintain an attractive image in the community,’ he writes. ‘A harsh criticism of Beijing obviously has a better chance of making newspaper headlines than a balanced statement.’ The politics of the TV tirade and the bold headline are more easily deployed than W. H. Auden’s flat ephemeral pamphlet and boring meeting which may, in Professor Cheng’s phrase, ‘reflect the community’s political apathy’. This is not surprising. In well-established democracies – and Hong Kong’s first steps are barely six years old – a strong turnout shows that voters are concerned about their interests, not that they are adjudicating in televised debates about political theory. Clarifying where their interests lie is an important purpose of grass-roots political organisation, still primitive in Hong Kong. Where it existed, as in some big housing estates, voter turnouts improved. Most potential voters seem to have stayed at home, waiting to see what would happen next. It is hard to blame them. Dimbleby says that Patten ‘longed for a legislature that would display the kind of political maturity which would make it even harder for Beijing to snuff out the light of freedom after the handover’, but whether Patten’s gamble on Chinese acceptance of his unilateral extension of the franchise was an object-lesson in political maturity depended more on its outcome than on tinny rhetoric. Patten had no mandate from London to re-open the signed and sealed Sino-British agreement, so for his franchise loophole to work, the Chinese side had to agree to it. At stake in the wager was the whole notion of the ‘through train’, which might have been of some value. The Governor lost his bet.

In December last year, as good as its threat, Beijing set up a ‘provisional legislature’ for Hong Kong in Shenzen, the territory’s booming satellite city just over the Chinese border. Of its 60 members, 33 also belonged to the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, but the leaders of the Democratic Party were, unsurprisingly, not included. On 11 December Tung Chee-hwa, a Shanghai-born, Liverpool-educated shipping magnate, was chosen – much as Venice chose its Doges –by a 400-member selection committee of Hong Kong notables to be the HKSAR’s first chief executive. Tung ran against a retired chief justice and a prominent businessman – all three were Chinese. This, clearly, was Beijing’s idea of ‘Hong Kong people running Hong Kong’. ‘Farewell to Hong Kong’s Freedom,’ the New York Times editorialised, somewhat prematurely. Dimbleby slyly re-dishes some old dirt on Tung: in 1985 the Bank of China joined a syndicate of American banks and lent US $120 million to bail out Tung’s Orient Overseas, whose debts in a shipping slump had reached $2.6 billion. ‘C.H. Tung had much for which to be grateful,’ Dimbleby sneers, ‘and although no one suggested any malfeasance on his part, it was widely presumed that, as an honourable man, he would not regard his debt to the People’s Republic to have been discharged merely by the repayment of the outstanding loan.’

As the handover approached, Hong Kong and its last governor fell into an unaccustomed mood of quiet resignation. In March a poll showed for the first time a clear majority, 62 per cent, preferring Chinese sovereignty over any other alternative – it being evident by then that there was none. A pessimistic Patten told a visitor: ‘I shall be pleased when it is the end of June.’ Almost five years earlier, another former politician, Brian Walden, had pointed out to Patten the logical fallacy in his plans: if the Beijing regime were to be trusted when they said they would abide by the terms of the Joint Declaration, why should they not be believed when they threatened, in so many harsh words, to dismantle his unilateral electoral reforms? ‘It’s an argument which is best put on a dark night with a following wind,’ Patten confided to his audio-visual Boswell, but he never managed, as he put it, to square that circle. Towards the end, even the Archbishop of Canterbury – not a known Beijing apologist – visiting Hong Kong to discuss the future of his flock, declined to stay at Government House. Meanwhile, back home, Patten’s own party were brawling their way to defeat in a dilemma that oddly mirrored Hong Kong’s: Eurosceptics, trumpeting British sovereignty, v. those who thought that one currency, 15 countries, was worth a try. Patten advised that the winner of the British election should not attend the handover ceremony. Blair won, went, and was affable. Neither in Hong Kong nor Britain did his polls seem to suffer.

Will the hksar end in tears? The great unknown is China itself. With by far the world’s fastest economic growth, China may, according to CIA estimates, have the world’s biggest economy by 2020. The rise of new industrial giants – the US, Germany, Japan, Russia – made ours the most violent century in history; China’s rise must create strains in the next. For the moment China looks to be in cautious hands – President Jiang Zemin, a former engineer, owes his elevation to his bloodless handling of the Tiananmen overspill while he was mayor of Shanghai; Li Peng, Premier since the Beijing shootings, is slated for replacement next spring, probably by Zhu Rongji of the Chinese Central Bank, who defused a dangerous episode of inflation in 1994. No succession crisis is, for the moment, in sight, but the mechanism of succession is uncertain in all Communist systems. That China is now moving in a liberal direction is conceded by even the most intransigent of the Hong Kong Democrats, my one-time journalist colleague Emily Lau, although, as she complains, ‘not fast enough’. The loss of Hong Kong’s ‘through train’ is regrettable; but seems, in the event, not to have made much difference. More important, at least through the recent market turbulence, has been that the key officials of the last days of British rule, all Chinese, have remained in place: in particular Anson Chan, the Chief Secretary, or head of the civil service, and Donald Tsang, the Financial Secretary, or treasurer. Dimbleby, with his rumours and nameless ‘friends’, hints that both Chan and Tsang were at odds with the incoming HKSAR administration: at the time of writing, both are still in office.

China’s tortuous march to superpower status could bring even more dazzling prospects for Hong Kong, but only if a deal which threatens neither party can evolve with Beijing. The first months have been encouraging. The two national days passed peacefully: China’s with a low-key flag-raising at dawn on 1 October, Taiwan’s ten days later, with no more than the removal of some Nationalist flags from an overpass where they would not have been permitted in British days, either. British and Commonwealth Remembrance Day was observed on 11 November, but the HKSAR dignitaries stayed away (Hong Kong is no longer a Commonwealth member). Tourists, shy as minnows, have yet to return in force, the Japanese reportedly (and mistakenly) complaining that Hong Kong is now just another Chinese city. The stock and property markets have survived both the malaise that has afflicted other Asian economies and a fierce speculative attack on the Hong Kong dollar, which fizzled after the Bank of China threw its US $134 billion reserves behind Hong Kong’s robust US $85 billion – ‘one country’ going publicly into action. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has announced elections next May to replace the provisional legislature. As the Basic Law provides, 20 seats will be directly elected, says Tung, rising to 24 in 2000 and 30 in 2004. ‘I think being prudent and careful is a good way of moving forward,’ he told businessmen in Washington. Put more bluntly: seven years should show whether ‘one country, two systems’, or open politics co-existing with Communist Chinese sovereignty, is workable. No Hong Kong political parties have been proscribed. Tacit deals that may be in the making on Communist and Nationalist participation have yet to emerge.

What really protects Hong Kong’s security, freedoms and ‘way of life’ are not promises, votes or basic laws, but what has always shielded them: China’s perception of its own interests. The stock and property markets should do well as long as the HKSAR remains the financial capital of Overseas China, whose patriotic instincts, goodwill, capital and worldwide contacts figure largely in China’s plans. Hong Kong’s demographics (discussed in The Hong Kong Advantage) promise well. Even with the harsh ‘one-child-per-family’ ruling (not applied in Hong Kong) China’s population will peak at 1.52 billion by 2033. The gigantic, reawakening country has only seven million university graduates, many of dubious competence. Hong Kong already has 17 per cent of its eligible age group in world-class tertiary education; on them, many of China’s hopes of scaling the technological ladder depend. Even as an Oriental Oxbridge, Hong Kong has much to offer. If all goes well – and 50 years is, to be sure, a long time – future Chinese leaderships may have the good sense, and serenity, to treasure their lucky windfall.

Britain, too, has been fortunate in getting out of Hong Kong so painlessly; as Hong Kong, the wonder city sprung from a pipe dream, has been lucky in its superb geographical position, in the convoluted Chinese history which has allowed its own inextinguishable Chinese talents to flourish, in its continuing usefulness to the successive stages of China’s disintegration, the greatest of all its revolutions, chaos, and now resurgence and camouflaged counter-revolution; and, not least, in having had an absent-minded, undogmatic, reasonably tolerant, passably honest and well-intentioned foster-parent. And even in its last, misty-eyed governor.