Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Chris Patten: The Hong Kong Diaries

I read books for insights and memorable lines respectively. One such line The problems were predictable, and, as always happens, they looked their most formidable on file muddling through is not an option ever advocated in briefing folders  is from Chris Patten's East and West, a tome that I immensely enjoyed; it is also one of the reasons for my interest in The Hong Kong Diaries; the other is my fascination for things Asian.

As befits a published diary, many remarks can be found in this well-written tome that go beyond the purely personal and do express the kind of common sense that I cherish. On his daughter Laura: "She is a lovable girl but at the moment very much a teenager – she knows what she wants to do and that's that." Moreover, it comes with judgements that often made me smile. On Lee Kuan Yew, a man of supreme self-confidence: "A clever Cambridge graduate, he had opinions on most international political subjects and very occasionally would listen to the views of others on the same subjects."

The last British governor of Hong Kong, from 1992 to 1997, not only gets briefed upon his arrival, he also learns "that I'm not really trusted to dress myself anymore." Nothing could illustrate better that he isn't there as Chris Patten but that he has an official role to play, a role that comes with lots of staff as well as impressive accomodation that also offers a not so terribly appreciated view on the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building. "Princess Margaret is said to have remarked that it looked like the back of a fridge. To which the obvious response was – 'But how does Princess Margaret know what the back of a fridge looks like?'"

The Hong Kong Diaries is a very instructive tome that not only provides insights into the governor's strictly planned daily life, from how to dress to meetings, lunches and dinners with political officials as well as encounters with the real world. So many talks and conversations – I felt exhausted! Also, one cannot escape the impression (he must have taken notes on a daily basis) that the author is also diligently working on securing that his view will be prominently feature in the history books.

This busy life comes with quite some perks like, for instance, an impressive yacht, it is however often overlooked that the price one has to pay is noteworthy too – life as a balancing act between political friends and foes from the British as well as from the Chinese side. I appreciated to learn almost as much about Patten's family life as about his life as a public persona for, needless to say, the two can't really be separated although some pretend that they can or should. I do however find this a rather artificial stance for it is the character of a person that primarily matters in everything he or she does.

The governor had not only to deal with differing views in the British government, he also had to find a way of how to handle the Chinese, who regarded even holding public meetings as controversial. I must admit that I soon lost track of the innumearble meetings, British and Chinese. Yet what increasingly baffled me was– given the present Chinese handling of Hong Kong  that all the controversies, all the hostilities, all the paying attention to diplomatic detail as well as to cultural sensitivities, all the efforts of giving face were seemingly for, well, not much, or so it seems.

Sure, engaging in diplomacy appears to be an interesting, privileged, but also demanding way of spending your time on planet earth, yet it doesn't seem to achieve much when it comes to interests of power. Differently put: I wonder what made the British believe that the Chinese would honour the 50-year-agreement of "one country, two systems". The fact that many Chinese businessmen as well as chief executives for the communist colonial power in Hong Kong and their family members held foreign passports may be more than just an indicator that public statements are what they are – statements for the public.

The Hong Kong Diaries is not only informative but also an entertaining read. I guess, it is his humour (apart from his family and his Catholic faith) that prevented the governor from not going nuts. "A visit to South Korea, staying in Seoul with the ambassador, Tom Harris, and his Taiwanese wife. The weather was freezing. I saw the President, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Trade; two out of three were called Kim." And, "High Wye" is how Margaret Thatcher pronounces Hawaii.

Chris Patten wonders at times what made him want to become a politician and governor of Hong Kong respectively. "I don't want to leave Newcastle so quickly. I'm also rather fed up about spending the whole winter being rubbished by China, criticized by businessmen and perhaps watching public support drain away. I sometimes don't know what it is about me that seems to attract controversy, I don't mean to be anything other than an amiable fellow living a life full of good intentions and with rather liberal views on things." Well, that sounds more like a decent human being than a man in politics.

I felt again and again puzzled why we do not call politics what it essentially is: a fight over money and privileges. "A lot of business leaders appear to have done a Faustian deal with the Chinese; you give us the capitalist part of the Joint Declaration and you can do what you want with the rest."  Also, I thought it particularly revealing that Chris Patten's goal to secure political freedom and the rule of law seems to have been made especially difficult ... by the British.

The Hong Kong Diaries is testimony to the belief that "Hong Kong's fight for freedom, for individual liberty and decency, is our fight as well." Our best weapon is to behave with decency, and this is what Chris Patten has done.

Chris Patten
The Hong Kong Diaries
Allen Lane, London 2022

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