Chris Patten speaks on the UK, Hong Kong, and China

06 Mar 2023
Chris Patten


Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the last British governor of Hong Kong, speaks with Project Syndicate’s Says More.

Chris Patten

Project Syndicate (PS): In December, you highlighted the difficult challenges facing the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, but saw reason to hope that he would tackle them effectively. One hundred days into his tenure, Sunak has announced his intention to scrap thousands of European Union laws by the end of this year and is reportedly considering withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to enable a crackdown on immigration. Meanwhile, the National Health Service (NHS) is facing the biggest strike in its history. Do you still see reason for optimism about Sunak? Where will his current trajectory take the UK and the Conservative Party?

Chris Patten (CP): Rishi Sunak is highly intelligent, hard-working, decent, and no ideologue. He certainly represents a huge improvement over his two predecessors (though that is not a very high bar). Nonetheless, Sunak is not above reproach. In fact, he has been wrong about two of the biggest issues in contemporary British politics: he long supported Brexit, and he strongly favoured Boris Johnson becoming Conservative Party leader and UK Prime Minister.

Sunak has inherited some awful problems. The British economy is in a miserable state, not least because the UK faces even worse inflation than other countries, owing not least to the policies of Johnson’s successor and Sunak’s immediate predecessor, Liz Truss. Meanwhile, the NHS, with an often badly paid and sometimes justifiably fractious workforce, is struggling to deal with a backlog of patients.

Above all, Sunak must cope with a divided Conservative Party, whose irresponsible right-wing faction is beyond satisfaction on any issue involving the European Union or sensible economic management. Intelligent policymaking – especially if it involves trying to achieve a decent working relationship with the EU – is threatened with sabotage. As a result, Sunak will be hard-pressed not only to unite his party, but also to run a sensible government between now and the next election, likely to come next year.

PS: Last October, you warned that a “post-peak China led by an all-powerful ruler will almost certainly aggravate global uncertainty and instability.” Recent developments – from the chaotic exit from zero-COVID to the flight of a Chinese surveillance balloon across the United States – seem to support this assessment. Are such episodes likely to raise alarm bells for Communist Party of China leaders – whose “growing nervousness” about the Party’s hold on power is what enabled Xi Jinping’s rise in the first place – or galvanize support for him? Is it already too late for the CPC on turn on Xi?

CP: China will struggle to recapture the GDP growth of the past – even the recent past – owing to economic imbalances, demographic challenges, and Xi’s apparent preference for the continued dominance of state-owned enterprises, rather than the innovative and growth-driving private sector.

In a totalitarian system like China’s surveillance state, outsiders can only guess at the internal political arguments that are taking place. But we can observe that Xi has made the sort of political errors that become more likely when a leader seems beyond criticism, and when those who surround him fear expressing opinions that do not match his own mood and instincts. In such a context, violent policy swings – like those over zero-COVID – become inevitable.

Xi certainly appears determined to maintain tight control over the CPC leadership. But it remains unclear how he will handle the political problems that will accompany slowing economic growth. The worry is that he will resort to stoking nationalist fervour – for example, by taking military action against Taiwan. We must hope that he has learned some lessons from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal and hugely unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine.

PS: You noted in June that “the CPC has now gotten rid of any school textbooks that might tell the truth about Hong Kong’s past and its aspirations.” But “for liberal democracy to prevail over authoritarianism,” you wrote in December, “people with [pro-democracy advocate Jimmy] Lai’s courage and convictions must not be forgotten.” And you make sure of that in your book The Hong Kong Diaries. What about your experience in Hong Kong were you most keen to put on record?

CP: I wanted to show that the citizens of Hong Kong – the majority of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees from communism in China – have a strong sense of citizenship based on an understanding of the relationship between the rule of law and the freedoms of an open society on the one hand, and economic success on the other. They are not going to forget the events – from the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square massacre – that sent so many of them scrambling over barbed wire or stowing away on ships to get to the safe haven of the British colony.

Like Stalin, the CPC believes that education – even of young children – should aim to engineer the soul. But dictators never succeed in giving their populations total amnesia. Memories of the past remain.

By The Way . . .

PS: In The Hong Kong Diaries, you describe how some British businessmen and civil-service officials – not just Chinese – resisted your efforts to entrench the rule of law and ensure the survival of self-government after 1997. What role have expatriates and other foreigners played in enabling China’s assault on Hong Kong today, and does your experience in the 1990s hold any lessons for dealing with them that remain relevant?

CP: The Chinese civil servants who worked for me in Hong Kong were outstandingly brave and competent; they understood in full measure the integrity of public service. Most of the British diplomats who worked for me were also beyond reproach, and I of course always had political support from the government in London.

But there were a few diplomats who belonged to the mush school of diplomacy: they believed that China could do no wrong, and that we should effectively adopt a policy of pre-emptive cringe toward the country. Some business leaders in Hong Kong, particularly expatriates, also believed that one should never stand up to China. But they had foreign passports in their back pockets, as did some Chinese businessmen who likewise seemed to care little about those who might have to continue living in Hong Kong with their freedoms stripped away.

At the very least, many Hong Kong citizens have been able to take advantage of the British passport scheme since 1997, with about 140,000 leaving the city to settle in Britain in the last couple of years alone.

PS: In May 1997, you wrote that the Chinese communists “always act solely in what they believe to be their own best interests, and regard any agreement as a stage in a relationship, not as an immutable conclusion to a negotiation.” Yet “the mush school of diplomacy will be listened to,” so China would “continue to get away with bad behaviour” and “therefore go on behaving badly.” Does the recent shift in the West’s approach to China and other authoritarian countries represent a correction in this regard?

CP: Two delusions have distorted and enfeebled policymaking on Communist China. The first is that economic and technical change would inevitably produce political change. A few years after China joined the World Trade Organization, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of an “unstoppable momentum” toward democracy in China. Alas, this turned out not to be the case at all.

The second delusion is that China will honour the agreements it makes. My main critic when I was governor of Hong Kong said that the Chinese leadership may be thuggish dictators, but they were men of their word. Unfortunately, only the first part of that statement is true. The Chinese have breached their agreements again and again. They have ignored maritime laws in the South China Sea, and violated the WHO health regulations to which they agreed in 2006. And they have of course run roughshod over the 1984 Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, a treaty lodged at the United Nations that guaranteed the preservation of Hong Kong’s way of life and a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after 1997.

The West may be taking a harder line on China, but the goal should not be to contain China. Rather, the objective should be to ensure that when the Chinese communists break their word, there are consequences. This is going to be particularly important when it comes to environmental diplomacy.

PS: As the title indicates, The Hong Kong Diaries comprises detailed journal entries you wrote during your five years as Hong Kong’s governor. Upon re-reading them, are there observations that seem more important now than they did then?

CP: I hope that when others read The Hong Kong Diaries, they will distinguish, as I do, between China and the Chinese on the one hand, and the CPC on the other. You don’t have to love the CPC in order to be a Chinese patriot. In fact, given the history of the Communist Party, the two might be incompatible. I trust that readers will also recognize that the Chinese communists need to be held to account when they break their promises. And they might question, as I have, why the Chinese communists are so afraid of liberal democratic values, if they genuinely believe that their surveillance state represents the best model for governance. The CPC seems to know that these values represent an existential threat to hardline dictatorships everywhere.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of The Hong Kong Diaries (Allen Lane, 2022).