Parting Remarks

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In the small hours of the morning of April 9, 1992, newly elected British Prime Minister John Major fought his way through the jubilant crowds to the staircase of the Conservative Party's London headquarters to address party workers. Despite a steady run of opinion polls against them and a campaign notorious for its nastiness, the Tories had won. Crammed beside Major in the melee on the staircase was the man who had run that successful campaign. But party chairman Chris Patten looked as though he had just swallowed a ferret. He had expended so much energy winning Major's race that he lost his own, in a Bath constituency. After 13 years in parliament, three of them as a cabinet minister, Patten was in need of a job.There are a number of options in British politics for an erstwhile cabinet member who is tossed out by his local electorate. He can take a seat in the House of Lords, though that geriatric parking lot seems tame after the House of Commons and opens the hastily ennobled politician to accusations of anti-democratic airs. He can parachute himself into another constituency, though voters don't always play along, and the double humiliation of losing a safe seat that way can be a fatal blow to a political career. Or he can drift off to a lucrative job in the City and wait for better times. None of these appealed to Chris Patten, but the proposition that John Major put to him the next morning certainly did.The final colonial governorship of Hong Kong was not only a glamorous job, but it also guaranteed a place in history that few cabinet members could hope to earn. Patten accepted at once. There was little in his curriculum vitae suggesting either that he was qualified for the job (beyond his friendship with Major) or that he would take to it the way he did. His own account of his life to that moment confirms that he drifted late into politics much in the way that many careers are determined: something happens, you go along with it, something else happens, you go along with that and before you know it you are an estate agent or a journalist or, in his case, a cabinet minister. This is not to decry Patten's abilities, but to make the point that he was not, even as a member of the Thatcher Government, a conviction politician. This was fortunate for him, as it happens, because when he acquired convictions later, they were not ones that would have recommended him to Margaret Thatcher.Not until he went to Hong Kong, Patten disarmingly confesses, did he have to think hard about what he believed in and why. The result of this reflection forms much of the material in East and West (Times Books; 320 pages), Patten's eagerly awaited account of the five years he spent managing the transition to Chinese sovereignty of Britain's last major overseas colony. From the evidence, there seems to be no overwhelming reason why he shouldn't have spared a little time to think before. His beliefs can be summed up quite briefly: free trade is the foundation of liberty, and the United States is the global guarantor of freedom; economies thrive with honest representative political systems and come to grief without them; individual rights are a universal entitlement, and Asian values have been a cloak for tyranny. And, er, that's it, folks. An undoubtedly worthy creed, if not very original.So why should we bother to get through the more than 300 pages it takes to elaborate these beliefs? Firstly, because this is, after all, the book that Rupert Murdoch ordered his minions at HarperCollins to ditch in order to keep his nose clean in Beijing. Secondly, because Patten, as the last Governor, was embroiled in so many rows that we are keen to see if he takes revenge.He does, up to a point. Villains there are a-plenty in these pages, enemies not just of Patten but, as he would see it, of liberty. What are missing, except in the case of the Beijing leadership, are the names. It's a bit like reading a roman a clef--the cognoscenti will have no difficulty in guessing the faces behind the references, and the victims will be sputtering apoplectically into their port, but the general reader may miss out on a frisson or two. I recommend keeping handy a copy of Jonathan Dimbleby's excellent 1997 book, The Last Governor. A quick shuffle through the index supplies the names of Patten's targets.Who are those targets, and what do they represent? Beijing's political caste, of course; Hong Kong businessmen who put money-making before the defense of democracy in Hong Kong; British businessmen who do the same; British politicians who seem prepared to sell their grandmothers into the gulag for a photo opportunity; and those whom Patten abbreviates as OCH (Old China Hands) and OFOC (Old Friends of China).Among the OCH, there is a special place in Patten's heart for Sir Percy Cradock, whose campaign against the Governor has been well documented elsewhere. The former British ambassador in Beijing embodies the spirit of the Foreign Office OCH--smooth, clever, Chinese-speaking, unconcerned about sentimental regrets over the Tiananmen incident and, Patten argues, often wrong. Edward Heath, the former British Prime Minister, is prominent among the OCHs. Patten describes the breed: they are specially chosen by China because they can be guaranteed, usually at the end of or some way beyond, their political working lives, to agree with whatever China does at any one time, or at least to find a plausible excuse for it. They are not always steeped in real expertise, but they are certainly steeped in paid official trips, official banquets, official stays in state guest houses, and official meetings at which mutual flattery is exchanged in prodigious quantities; they are in some cases steeped in lots of money.The Hong Kong Chinese who sat on China's Preliminary Working Committee, set up in 1993 to plan the transition, come in for a blast, too. Patten sums them up as Beijing's most favored henchmen and women--old time Communist coelacanths, tycoons on the make, ambitious third-raters, Knights and Commanders of the Most Distinguished Order of the British Empire who had found another empire to serve, the earnestly ill-advised. Other figures can swiftly be identified by a flick through Dimbleby's index. Several pages, for instance, are devoted to the futility of ministerial-led trade visits. Patten points out that these are usually unproductive, that the agreements signed may well have been signed before and often have no meaning, and that a price is generally exacted for the visit in terms of other, more important negotiations. I do not argue with his case, but I needed a reference to Dimbleby to confirm that the intended target on this occasion was the former Deputy PM Michael Heseltine, who tried to stop Patten from pressing ahead with legislation for Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal because he was leading a trade delegation to China in May 1995. Major backed Patten in the end, but it was a hard-fought round.The larger point, of which Patten became convinced as Hong Kong's Governor, was that China exerts a peculiarly baneful influence on most of those who come into contact with that country. The myth of the size of the Chinese market (Britain exports nine times as much to Luxembourg and Belgium than to China, and three times as much to Australia) combined with the ruthlessness of the regime allows Beijing to manipulate greedy governments in a replay of the old policy of using the barbarian to control the barbarian. This is not a new or original apercu, but it is unusual for a politician of Patten's weight to put it so directly. Patten admits that he seems to be living his political life backwards. Not for him the radical adolescence followed by serene middle years. For him the rage of conviction came in his 50s: Hong Kong was his epiphany.What is the book for? Patten says it is neither a memoir nor a detailed account of his governorship, not an economics textbook on Asia or another volume promoting the Asian century. Instead, he writes, I have tried to draw on my experience as governor to develop a number of arguments about Asia, about the conduct of economic policy, about the components of good governance and about the relationship between political freedom and economic liberty. This can hardly be called a ground-breaking text, and I can quibble with some of his argument, but it is a readable one. If there are few shattering insights, there is, at least, a likable voice.The book offers no hints on what the last Governor will do next. His government fell, his friend is no longer Prime Minister, his party is led by another faction. Years in the wilderness stretch before the Tories. Not for Patten the effortless slipping sideways into the merchant banks that do business with China--he's too radical now for the polished surface of the boardroom table and has too many enemies. Sections of this book read like a job application, but for what? Something in Europe perhaps, or the mayorship of London. He has run a city of 6.4 million, after all. From Last Governor to First Mayor--not a bad trajectory.Isabel Hilton is a London writer and broadcaster who lived in China from 1973-75