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  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 1:28am
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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I read the exchange of comments
between whymak and nameless
before I read the fat charmer
the great magician
whymak is characteristically eloquent and convincing
Nameless allegedly a speechwriter for a former HSBC chairman
recalled a former head of HKUST’s speechwriter and that ADB ambassador
Their’s seems a profession of high-sounding shallow gibberish
nameless might be more interesting talking real experiences
telling us about “bloody traitor”
that’s what fat charmer called the DSO decorated former soldier
or about the last old timer / school leaver chairman
best known for his “successes” in the acquisition of Household International
or about Good Value Preacher who probably wrote his own speeches
Stilted mouth-pieces are out of their depth talking democracy
If Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation had tried one-shareholder one-vote
would the bank have degraded itself to a four-letter-word moniker
and suffered the subsequent sub prime losses and appalling penalties?
The great magician’s most eye-catching achievement
was the instant metamorphosis of crumbling Oxford
from what its former don had recognized
as an inferior also-ran into a top ten
in a British concocted league table
Fat charmer’s final paragraphs were sheer sophistries
It’s refreshing to debate with a literate reader. However, your Western CHOICE cliché is far from the coup de grace to my scientific temperament.
Lord CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” narrative of the gulf between humanists and scientists was a popular social and academic discourse in the 60s. For me, this issue exposes an asymmetric divide, in which men of letters are ignorant of Maxwell equations and Einstein’s relativity, whereas scientists’ bedside readings often contain a fair amount of Proust, Goethe and Shakespeare.
Into the 21st Century global village, a chasm exists now between religions – God of Abraham, Democracy, Communism – and Science. While democracy, freedom and choice, typically 18th Century jargons without operational definitions, are still the rage, we recognize socio-political reconstruction necessarily requires the scientific method, one based on empirical evidence, experimentation and optimization.
The issue then is one of formulating an object function and optimizing it subject to a set of country, cultural and environment specific constraints. Briefly put, freedoms among speech, property rights, etc. are variables. Case in point constraints are Chinese culture, stage of economic development, external threats. It is only then the real CHOICE emerges.
@whymak. What kind of objective function are you going to formulate to determine whether human life has any value? Do you just arbitrarily assign a constant? Your ideology is morally flawed.
***Anonymous (continued):
The Patten administration had successfully performed prefrontal lobotomies on HK airheads. Other than mouthing platitudes of Democracy and China’s tyranny, these living dead have neither appreciation of Western culture nor science. Would you want them to govern?
Rises and declines of empires and ideologies are natural course of history to which no nation is immune. China's rise will be no exception.
Advanced democracies with their excessive entitlements, political gridlocks, never ending foreign wars, failed governments that pander to mob populism are obviously on the down leg of another historical cycle. Is there any reason that HK should follow the advice of the US and UK to commit political seppuku?
How About
Mr. Patten, hope you’ve recovered fully from your heart surgery. We love to learn from you as a follow-up on these subjects:
1) Other than the foreign policies of the US, does UK or the EU members have distinct foreign policies beyond trade and energy? So knowing what you now know, how could you so lightly excuse the failed global-domination policies in a statement “ United States' own record .. undermined American politicians' credibility..”? Praytell your views on their hypocrisy.
2) "Joint Declaration … guaranteed Hong Kong's way of life for 50 years under Deng Xiaoping's slogan "one country, two systems". Did you embellish the 2-system beyond the understanding in the JD? Were there any political contingency plans you entertained?
3) For humanity as well as HK today, isn't Beethoven's Fifth allegro or Ninth as suggested by whymak below, better as in comparably uplifting, analogies than your choice of Fidelio?
How About
@How About:- "Were there any political contingency plans you entertained?"
If in the last few days all went belly-up , a British RAF helicopter was standing by to fly me to from Government House to the Catholic Cathedral where "Bowtie" and his shoe-shining supporters had been briefed to meet me and line up on the roof-mounted water tank from where and we would pick up anyone else of the true faith..... subject to payload restrictions and also the constrictions of lacking of a third runway!
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.
"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?
Lord Patten, you betrayed Hong Kong people in 1997 and you have no right to **** on Hong Kong affairs, unless you can give Hong Kong people real British Passports with right of abode in Britain!
Britain has no moral obligation to let people in HK immigrate to Britain whatsoever. That is just finding a convenient scapegoat for failing to fix your own governance problems. HK should mind its own affairs and not force others to invite them as a guest to escape its problems.




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