Aware of my Chinese past, Margaret Thatcher once asked me whom she should send as the new Governor of Hong Kong. A businessman, I said. Sinologues could be subject to cultural assimilation, and a politician risked promising the inhabitants of a colony existing on sufferance things he could not deliver. Thatcher appointed Sir Edward Youde, a sinologue, and in 1992 John Major sent Chris Patten.
Coming after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, our enforced retreat from the colony was a distressing affair. Our focus should have been on continuity, stability and the welfare of its people. Instead we focused on our own bella figura.
If there had to be retreat, by fighting for democracy till the end, we would do it in such grand moral style it would resemble a victory. We hadn’t installed it during the 150 years of our ownership, but the Communists must promise to do it now. Why hadn’t we done it ourselves? Inertia has its natural attractions for governments, yet the reason tentative thoughts had come to nothing was the likely Chinese reaction.
A viable democracy in Hong Kong would have depended on the toleration of the most pitiless totalitarian system in modern history. Anti-Communist political parties could not have been excluded; and the paranoid regime in Beijing would have seen the whole thing as a prelude to independence. The result would have been blood on the streets.
During the Cultural Revolution we had a taste of it. As assistant political adviser to the Governor I was involved in the 1967 emergency, when the colonial government shot a number of bombers and rioters and imprisoned hundreds more. About 50 people were killed and 800 injured. Why should this matter today? Because Hong Kong history does.
Let’s go back further, to the Opium Wars by which we acquired the colony. On the morality of the opium business, James Matheson, partner in the British firm Jardine Matheson & Co. that dominated the illegal trade, wrote: “I can conscientiously declare that I have never seen a native in the least bestialised by opium smoking . . . Much of the opium smoked used to be on convivial occasions of the upper classes, as in England champagne and costly wines.” In Hong Kong, self-delusion began early.
For us the success of the colony, and its role as a refuge for escapees from Mao’s “abattoir of a state”, as Clive James has called it, has atoned for the iniquity of its seizure. Though not for Beijing. Meeting Deng Xiaoping with my boss Lord Carrington in 1981 in the first discussion of its reversion to China, his message seemed clear to me. This was Chinese territory, and they wanted it back. There could be negotiations but the British were in no position to dictate conditions.
At home indignation was to run high. Give away British territory — technically Hong Kong island was ours in perpetuity — to a totalitarian regime? Impossible. Station a nuclear submarine off the Chinese coast to protect it, I seem to recall a certain hawkish historian thundering, an option Mrs Thatcher declined to consider. Then came the Basic Law of 1990, with provision for the election of the chief executive in 2017. Who was fooling whom? The answer is clear today: Britain was fooling itself, and both governments were fooling the Hong Kong people.
Imagine, if you can, Xi Jinping allowing a reformist to run Hong Kong as a democratic showcase for China, or a populist in the Bo Xilai mould making it his power base. If the Chinese have shown cynical duplicity in the whole business, the British have been guilty of self-delusion. Unless the Communist regime collapsed there was never any possibility of genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, and both sides must have known it.
Why did Beijing sign up to an agreement they had no intention of honouring? Because the colony’s stability was important, and in the post-Mao era world opinion had begun to matter. Though not so much that you couldn’t ignore it when the time was ripe and China had become immeasurably more powerful than before.
And why did we render ourselves morally responsible for upholding a promise of elections that was doomed from the start? Because like the Communists a presentational let-out was what we needed, so as not to dishonour the manner of our going. And so off we went, heads high, leaving the Communists in vengeful mood and the Hong Kong inhabitants with little more than pious wishes for the longer-term future.
What do we do now? The reason for the muted bleats of protest by the British government and media was not just the risk that our trade might suffer, or that business as a whole in Hong Kong preferred a quiet life at a time when the challenge of Shanghai is increasing. It was — and is — that there is little we can say or do that would not make things worse.
Patten himself has been less than full-throated, except to say that the UK has a “moral and political obligation” to defend full democracy in the city, though on how we are to do it the ex-Governor is unspecific, as are Parliament and the press. Given the terms on which they parted Patten’s influence in keeping the Chinese up to the mark is unlikely to be great. Rather the contrary, which may explain why Number 10 appears to have encouraged him to keep his voice down.
And what of the young and hopeful Hong Kong democrats, victims of our sanctimonious vainglory? The priority is to protect them from the risk of violence at the hands of a callous regime. Riding roughshod over the Basic Law won’t do much for China’s image, though in retrospect ours doesn’t look too good either. Our triumphalist exit made us party to the deception of the Hong Kong people, and of ourselves. Responsibility without power is part of the post-colonial condition, but moral grandstanding by promising things we are in no position to deliver makes it worse.