Pao's daughter reveals details of his role as political catalyst

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 3:51pm

Y.K. Pao, My Father

by Anna Pao Sohmen

HKU Press

Oliver Chou

This book is more than a memoir, as the subject lived an extraordinary life in an extraordinary time.

In documenting the life of her father, the late shipping magnate Pao Yue-kong, Anna Pao Sohmen puts on record exclusive details for the first time. These details, especially direct quotes from world leaders at private meetings, are invaluable as a primary source for scholars. It is equally readable for anyone who wants to know how a former Shanghai banker - who with his family fled the communist takeover and arrived in Hong Kong in 1949 - became, as Newsweek stated on its cover in 1976, "King of the Sea".

The author, Pao's eldest child, was her father's virtual assistant and was at most of the meetings, business or political, with leaders from the East and West. She begins with her early family life, and what she observed as her father's subtlety toward things he disliked but somehow accepted, such as his grandfather's smoking and his mother's mahjong games. Such pragmatism was translated into business deals, and he was one of the few in the 1950s to engage the Japanese. That was just a few years after the long, bloody war ended in 1945. Even his eldest child had a problem accepting that and took issue with her father. "You must separate politics from business," he explained, then quoted a Chinese proverb: "Our chest must be as broad as the ocean,' meaning one must be able to forgive even if one does not forget."

But Pao did not forgive what the corrupt Nationalist government did in the late 1940s. "It was mistreating our own people. To me, it was a greater crime [than the Japanese invasion]."

Pao's sympathy for the Communists had much to do with elder Uncle Lu, his wife's first cousin, who was general manager of trading company Kwong Da Wah, and an underground party member. The book discloses how Lu had wanted to recruit Pao into the party by leaving a copy of the Communist Manifesto with him. Knowing Pao showed no interest, he instead advised him to "go and be a capitalist" in Hong Kong and get supplies for China under sanction because of the Korean War (1950-53) through Kwong Da Wah, now known as China Resources.

Pao's sentiment towards China did not diminish during the decade-long Cultural Revolution when he lost contacts on the mainland, including Lu, who was purged from deputy foreign trade minister to a street sweeper. "One day, China is going to open up, and we will all go home. What would you do with a foreign husband, then?" he wrote to his daughter in 1967, asking her to reconsider her marriage to Helmut Sohmen, the eventual successor at Pao's shipping empire.

The best part of the book covers Pao's entry into politics in the late 1970s until his untimely death in 1991. It was a time when the future of Hong Kong became the top priority, and Pao seemed to be the perfect agent between London and Beijing. Within just five months in 1978, he was in Buckingham Palace receiving a knighthood from the queen and in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing as a state guest of the recently rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping. He also played golf with Denis Thatcher, husband of the British prime minister. These relationships sealed his role in the Sino-British talks over Hong Kong. While all is history now, there are plenty of anecdotes of Pao's ingenious approaches to the leaders. During the impasse in the Sino-British talks, Pao asked American president Ronald Reagan to present a scroll to Margaret Thatcher written in Chinese calligraphy. The seven-character verse read: "Beyond the dark willows, there is another blossoming village." The message: it is not the end of the world once Britain hands over Hong Kong to China.

Pao knew China was determined to take Hong Kong back because Deng had told him privately in February 1982. That was seven months ahead of the official announcement. The book offers details of how "the lubricant of engines", as the former British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe described Pao, shuttled between the sides until the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984.

The first 10 years of China's reform and opening up were largely upbeat until the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Unlike Chinese editions of the book, the English account provides a full paragraph on a meeting between Pao and Deng. The author, who was not present, notes her "father's mood appeared very low when he returned to the hotel ... All he said to me was: 'It takes time. It is not easy.'"

Despite his vision in the business world, Pao did not see beyond China's political past or present. He reminded the Western leaders: "China is too big, too poor and too uneducated to change the political system and risk losing control of the country." The book is frank about his political conservatism. After all, he died in 1991, so he did not see a richer and more educated China, or, once they blossomed, how little those two factors have affected the country's political system.