‘Contradiction on Stilts’

A uniquely personal take on the transfer of power in Hong Kong.

The BOCHK Bank of China Building under construction viewed from the Peak
The BOCHK Bank of China Building under construction, 1988. Wiki Commons/Matthew Laird Acred.

‘We have to give Hong Kong and its way of life the best chance of continuing as a free city after the handover.’ So wrote Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, in his diary just over three years before the transfer of the territory to China on 1 July 1997. We are now halfway through the 50-year period that was meant to preserve Hong Kong’s way of life under the agreement reached between China and Britain in 1984 and Patten has made his thoughts public, motivated to do so by the global outrage at China’s recent Stalinist clampdown in the territory. 

Since Patten first recorded his thoughts, thousands of pages have been devoted to the handover negotiations, their aftermath and consequences. Some of the government’s own files from the time are now accessible in the National Archives, although many of them remain closed, due no doubt to an excess of bureaucratic caution of the kind that Patten would find familiar. 

The immediate question, therefore, is what can Patten’s diaries offer us that has not already been told? The short answer is his uniquely personal take on the negotiations, his sometimes acerbic but often generous views on other actors, his self-deprecatory humour, seemingly boundless patience and, by no means least, a series of delightful one-liners. Surely no scholarly report or Foreign Office telegram will have described a free Hong Kong under the Chinese Communist Party as ‘an oxymoronic contradiction on stilts’. As the diaries also show, Patten was a politician of integrity and principle, something once taken for granted, but sadly lacking today. 

His deep mistrust of Chinese intentions is apparent from the opening pages. Before he had even set foot in Hong Kong, Patten was withering in his comments about the ‘elderly bruisers in Beijing’ and their general thuggery. It was not meant to have been like this. Eight years earlier, on signing the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s future, Margaret Thatcher had praised China’s leaders for their vision. The reality, which the diaries only touch on in passing, is that while the two sides shared a common aim in ensuring the continuing prosperity and vibrancy of Hong Kong, they held very different interpretations of what that meant in practice and how to achieve it. Thatcher was convinced that Hong Kong’s success was down to British ‘light touch’ administration and wanted that to continue. For China, as Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew told Patten, his city state was the role model for Hong Kong’s future. British leaders might have put a brave face on matters, but the Joint Declaration they signed was much closer to China’s objectives than their own. 

In 1984 that did not seem to be a problem. China was assumed to be on an irrevocable path to reform, opening and liberalising, with western politicians queuing up to visit Beijing, sign trade deals and even sell weapons. Then came 1989 and the brutal suppression of the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Today it is hard to recall just how great were the global shock waves from this. The Soviet Union was reforming and liberalising, the Soviet bloc was crumbling, authoritarian states such as South Korea and Taiwan were liberalising and in South Africa F.W. de Klerk’s succession to the presidency heralded the end of Apartheid. To paraphrase Francis Fukuyama, the end of history seemed in sight. The crackdown in Tiananmen served as a violent reality check and, for Hong Kong, a chilling warning that the future might not be so rosy after all. 

The massacre exposed the fundamentally different attitudes that the Joint Declaration had tried to paper over. As Patten puts it: ‘You cannot live indefinitely with concepts which mean one thing to Parliament in Britain and the citizens of Hong Kong and something completely different in negotiations in Beijing.’ This helps explain his deep mistrust of Chinese motives and attitudes and why he was so determined to do what he could to give Hong Kong and its way of life the best chance of continuing as a free city after the handover.

It was an uphill struggle and not just because of Chinese intransigence. Opposition to Patten’s efforts came from sometimes surprising quarters. Patten’s frustrations are apparent, but so too are his admiration and respect for others. He even recognises that the Chinese government faced risks: a settlement acceptable to Britain could have potentially destabilising domestic consequences. 

Nor does Patten completely overlook some of the problems bestowed on Hong Kong by years of uninterested colonial government: a Jockey Club that enjoyed a monopoly on gambling and made huge profits yet, in return for a poorly defined expectation that it would make donations to ‘suitable’ charitable causes, paid no taxes; woefully inadequate public housing meaning far too many people living in downright squalid conditions; shortcomings in public health, welfare provision and education. Barely mentioned are the appalling conditions in which Vietnamese refugees and economic migrants were housed and for which Britain was roundly criticised. 

Serious scholars may find the diaries too prolix or too concerned with the minutiae of family life, but as an unrepentantly personal record they are valuable and entertaining. Patten, who says he aimed to be no more than ‘an amiable fellow leading a life full of good intentions and with rather liberal views’ is understandably depressed at the systematic way China has broken the Joint Declaration that it signed in 1984, feeling that Hong Kongers deserved better than Britain bequeathed them. Maybe so, but as these diaries show, his own epitaph should surely be that he left Hong Kong a better place than he found it.

The Hong Kong Diaries
Chris Patten
Allen Lane 560pp £30
Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)


Michael Reilly is a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham and a former British representative to Taiwan.