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  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 3:41pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Freedom will triumph, in Hong Kong and elsewhere

Chris Patten says democratic societies are right to support the natural aspiration towards freedom and the recognition of human rights of people everywhere, including Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 July, 2014, 1:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 7:45am

On July 1, 17 years ago, I was sailing on Britain's royal yacht away from Hong Kong where, at midnight the previous day, China assumed sovereignty under the terms of an international agreement with the United Kingdom (tabled at the United Nations) known as the Joint Declaration. That agreement guaranteed Hong Kong's way of life for 50 years under Deng Xiaoping's slogan "one country, two systems". The rule of law and the freedoms associated with pluralism - due process and the freedom of speech, assembly and worship - were to remain the bedrock of Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.

Fast forward to this year. On a date that meant so much to me personally as the colony's last governor, and much more to the citizens of Hong Kong, I attended a magnificent production of Beethoven's Fidelio in the grounds of a country house near Oxford. Beethoven's only opera, written in 1805 (the year of Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz) and rewritten in 1814 (when Napoleon abdicated), is one of the supreme cultural expressions of fundamental human values - freedom and opposition to tyranny - that resonate in every society.

The opera's most dramatic moment comes when political prisoners are briefly released from their dungeons. "Oh Heaven! Salvation! Happiness," they sing. "Oh Freedom! Will you be given us?" As they sang of liberty, the setting sun's rays dazzled the prisoners and the Oxfordshire audience. Nature underlined the importance of the message.

Much of the history of the two centuries since Beethoven composed his opera has centred on that quest for freedom: the fight against colonial powers, the campaigns for basic human rights, the resistance to modern totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. On the whole, liberty has triumphed. But the struggle is not yet over; it continues on every continent and takes many forms.

Consider the victims of torture from Central America to Ivory Coast to Pakistan; the legal harassment - not least of journalists - in Egypt; the persecution of gays in Russia and Uganda; human trafficking, prevalent even in developed countries; and the abduction of young Christian women in northern Nigeria. In many countries, political dissidents (like the captives in Fidelio) are locked up - or worse - in defiance of the clear and open procedures that should ensure the rule of law.

The extent to which concern for human rights should be a consideration in setting foreign policy is a contentious issue in most democracies, which often believe that their own record entitles them to lecture others. Sometimes it does; often it does not. For example, the United States' own record, at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, has undermined American politicians' credibility on this subject.

There is also the question of consistency. One cannot credibly thump the table about human rights in one country, but keep one's opinions to oneself in another - an all-too-common occurrence when, say, a trade deal might suffer.

A lack of consistency has been one of the European Union's sins in attempting to establish a value-based foreign policy. The EU sought to build a partnership of economic and political cooperation in the Mediterranean region, for example, in which financial assistance and trade liberalisation would be contractually linked to progress in advancing human rights and developing democratic institutions.

This sensible objective was sabotaged by the tendency to overlook what was actually happening in some countries. Many suspect that some EU member states, while insisting on robust human-rights clauses in bilateral agreements with countries known to torture prisoners, secretly aided in the rendition of suspected terrorists to these same countries.

I have no doubt that it is in the national interest of democracies to promote freedom and human rights. Though these values cannot be imposed by force or manufactured like instant coffee, the world is likely to be more peaceful, stable and prosperous the more that countries treat their own citizens decently.

This is not a prescription for a soggy policy that denies the demands of the real world. But reliance on realpolitik as the guiding light of foreign policy has a pretty shabby track record. Realpolitik brought us the bombing of Cambodia and the mass killings under Pol Pot.

Moreover, "realist" assumptions often turn out to be remarkably implausible. Trade deals are often not secured or sustained by political kowtows. Countries buy what they need and sell what they can at the best price they can get, regardless of whether another country has or has not written a ministerial communiqué. Rather, all relevant policies - from aid to political and security cooperation - should be related to strengthening the institutions and values to which one adheres.

All of this brings me back to July 1 of this year. While I was listening to Fidelio, tens of thousands of Hongkongers (organisers say hundreds of thousands) were demonstrating for liberty. They want a fair and open system for electing their government, and to defend the freedom and rule of law that make Hong Kong so special and successful, a genuinely liberal - in the classical sense - society.

Eventually, Hong Kong's people will get what they want, despite China's objections; freedom invariably wins in the end. But China's rulers would take a giant step forward by recognising that such aspirations are not a threat to the country's well-being.

For now, however, China, a great country and a growing power, is handling its economic affairs with more sophistication and a surer touch than it is addressing its political challenges.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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hm03
Britian is already doing that by given the choice for Soctland to become independent through a referendum.
A Hong Konger
A Matsui: Unmitigated lies. The 92' electoral reforms under Patten gave Hong Kong its only taste of democracy that were undone by the Chinese gov on the day of the handover when the provisional legislature replaced our elected one. How DARE you insult the HK people by feeding us blatant LIES! Furthermore the Chinese colonialists are doing a far worse job and care nothing for HK.
rawlie
They shaped the world as we know it today through a combination of trade, war and diplomacy, that is true. But, tell me, who would you rather have had? The French with their "impeccable record" in Africa and Indo-China? Italy, who had made a mess of Libya and it's part of North Africa? Germany and their cultural exclusivity? Spain and it's quest for gold at any expense? Perhaps Japan if we are looking closer to home?
The sun never set on the British Empire for one good reason... people on all sides were getting rich. It would never have lasted so long without compliance from the locals.
A Matsui
When Chris Patten was colonial governor of Hong Kong he did nothing for freedom. The only thing he did was to stuff his face with egg tarts and to sabotage the Basic Law process. For a colonial to talk about freedom would be like a rapist or **** talking about child safety. Not only is it hypocritical but it is contemptible.
A Hong Konger
A Kuro: And China can start on the freedom movement by giving independence to the oppressed people of Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. China can also stop oppressing freedom by stopping the support of oppressive regimes in the world (such as S.Sudan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc), stop wars and encouraging wars (such as with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc) by stopping the arms sales to oppressive regimes (such as S.Sudan, Sudan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc).
Scotland is about to have a referendum on independence in Sep this year. When will ours be? Does China have the guts? Of course not...
M Miyagi
If the last ex-colonial governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten and Great Britain really cared about the freedom and welfare of their colonial subjects in Hong Kong, obviously they should give all the colonial subjects living in HK on June 30th, 1997 that wants it, the automatic right of abode and full British citizenship rights including the British passport. By giving this right to only a select few means the British do not care about their ex-colonials. Chris Patten talking about freedom is just empty talk. If Chris Patten wants to engage in empty talk he should go stuff his face with egg tarts instead.
Dao-Phooy
At least Chris Patten has the courage to speak out - no doubt he'll face criticism from the mouthpieces from the North about interference etc. Chris Patten always receives a warm welcome from ordinary Hongkongers whenever he visits HK. Will any Mainland leader ever receive such a genuine warm reception when they visit HK?
A Kuro
Britain can start on the freedom movement by giving independence to the oppressed people of Scotland. Britain and the US can also stop oppressing freedom by stopping the support of oppressive regimes in the world, stop wars and encouraging wars by stopping the arms sales to oppressive regimes.
whymak
What a silly glorification of Western universal values by Mr. Patten! Of all Beethoven's masterpieces, he had to pick Beethoven's single opera with multiple revisions to make the case to HK Democracy Cultists. Interestingly, Fidelio has never been performed with the frequency of other great German operas such as Die Zauberfloete or Der Rosenkavalier, let alone used as Patten’s propaganda tool.
Mr. Patten may be socially likeable, but beneath that veneer of philistine sophistry, he is just another dogmatic classical liberal politico.

Everyone talks about freedom. But peace of mind -- vaguely known as happiness – has only partly to do with exercise of freedom when packaged with requisite collaterals. Has it occurred to him that different kinds of freedom, including speech, counteract one another and must be apportioned with care? Moreover, the exercise of every freedom comes with a responsibility. Yes, this is our Chinese core value.

Real freedom constantly present is a state of mind. This is generally totally absent among those who insist that all solutions could only be hashed out from political strife and adversarial advocacy. Worse, hate speech in HK is constantly aided and abetted by Iago-esque foreigners under the protection of free speech.

To those chanting hate-China slogans in our streets, Beethoven had already responded for me in Ninth Symphony: “Nicht diese Toene!...Alle Menschen werden Brueder!” Indeed, this is our Chinese way: 四海之內皆兄弟也。
cleareye
"The NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden has condemned the new surveillance bill being pushed through the British parliament this week, expressing concern about the speed at which it is being done, a lack of public debate, fear-mongering, and what he described as increased powers of intrusion." Is this the price to pay for the freedom, under a police state, as per Chris Patten?

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