When the British first tried to offer something to China, during the Macartney mission in 1793, the powers that were in Beijing responded with withering contempt. The Emperor declared that: "we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange and ingenious".
Chris Patten's record of his term (1992-97) as the last British governor of Hong Kong confirms that China can react with the same steely, sullen condescension even when something is given back to it. Patten's day-to-day account (The Hong Kong Diaries) includes many instructive, if not constructive, lessons on how to deal with China. The intense, impassioned hostility Patten faced marked the birth of the wolf warrior strand in Chinese policy.
Patten's unenviable task was to implement a handover of power already agreed, while preserving as much of human rights and the rule of law as China would permit, pushing through infrastructure projects (especially Hong Kong's new airport) , fending off the more unhelpful suggestions from his colleagues in London and Beijing, and trying to maintain a semblance of control until China took over under the pretext of "one country, two systems".
Before his term even started, Patten had concluded that China thought Britain's ambitions were to take "all the loot with us when we go, and to leave behind a political timebomb which would blow their autocratic regime to smithereens". Perhaps Chinese calculations about Britain were more pragmatic, that the British would fret about jeopardising their burgeoning trade with the mainland, that they would not make democracy or the rights of Hong Kong residents a make-or-break issue, and that Britain once again over-estimated the scope and scale of its control over events. After all, Britain had originally seized Hong Kong simply to facilitate the most systematic, sordid drug trafficking in human history.
Chinese leaders would have been confirmed in their views had they known that a deputy prime minister of Britain, Geoffrey Howe, compared the relationship with China to a precious vase, one to be carried with utmost care lest it drop and break. Patten received more sage advice from a former US Secretary of State, George Shultz, who reminded him that relationships flowed from individual decisions taken in the national interest, not the other way around. Good relations are not an end in themselves, while the relationship "as a whole" remains the sum of its discrete, transactional parts.
From his first pages, Patten emerges as a decent, wry, intelligent and committed governor. Noting that "I have never favoured pre-emptive cringes", he resolved to try to stand up to some Beijing demands. The vice-regal uniform was abandoned forthwith: "it must be more difficult to talk about openness and democracy is you're wearing feathers in your hat". Enhancing Hong Kong's defences, like Taiwan's or Singapore's, was immediately ruled out. "The only bunkers in Hong Kong were on the golf courses." By his own account, Patten seemed regularly baffled about why China was so appalling to "an amiable fellow leading a life full of good intentions and with rather liberal views on things".
Turning to China, Patten soon realised that its negotiators were "programmed to be as unhelpful as possible unless they get their own way, and this changes with bewildering irrationality and speed". Entirely unrelated issues were linked for political effect, requests for consultation were interpreted as a right of veto. Love China, love the Chinese Communist Party, became familiar to him as "the lethal consubstantiality of Chinese Leninist theology".
One broken promise followed another until, 25 years later, we may witness "the demolition of a free society". Extradition proposals, national security laws, repression of the media and suppression of demonstrations, all these have trumped what Patten accurately praised as Hong Kong residents' "hard work, entrepreneurism, self-discipline and individual guts".
From 1992 to 1997, during the era of hide (your strength) and bide (your time), China employed against Patten a playbook with which we - particularly we Australians - are now familiar. Impute bad faith to your counterpart as one component of bullying. Run the clock by stalling and linkage. Assume your negotiating partner has no bottom line, and can be pushed into ever more concessions. Exploit the fears of business interests, whether about stability or future contracts, as leverage on the other side.
Manipulate the media with talk of breakdowns, crises or dire repercussions if agreement is not reached on China's terms. Indulge in "lushing up" sympathisers; we would say, "duchessing". "Openness, accuracy and transparency are themselves regarded as Chinese concessions." In fact, Jiang Zemin's disposition to talk about the actress, Vivien Leigh, is one of few touches not usually associated with the Mafia or bush lawyers.
Patten's insights were acquired incrementally, accumulated during squabbles over election rules, sewerage, the budget, right of abode, courts of appeal and freedom of the press. In 1997 such "struggle diplomacy" may well have seemed unorthodox or unprecedented as well as unwelcome. Now they might be a new normal. Patten evidently thought China's steady, sustained, studied exercise of power easily spilled over into relentless self-interest or dogmatic bullying. He had witnessed the first flicks of wolf warrior claws.
Despite all his talk about tennis and his dogs, daughters and speeches, his grand boat and country retreat, Patten comes across as a dignified, dutiful servant of Empire. He was dealt a bad hand, playing against a Chinese team determined to change the rules. He knew Hong Kong deserved better.
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