Patten lacked long-term perspective, ex-diplomat writes

Colonial diplomat's memoir lifts the lid on the priorities of Hong Kong's last governor

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 3:57am

Hong Kong's last governor, Chris Patten, did not develop a long-term perspective on Sino-British relations, a former senior British diplomat says. That's because, as a politician his strategy was "getting through to lunch" rather than one getting through to June 1997, the city's final month of colonial rule, the diplomat writes in a memoir.

The closing days of British rule in Hong Kong were marked by constant bickering between Patten and Beijing, but the book, Ever the Diplomat, by Sherard Cowper-Coles, head of the Hong Kong department of Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1994 to 1997, also reveals Patten fell out with London.

"Governor, you really ought to have a strategy to take you through to June 1997," Cowper-Coles recalls saying in an early conversation with Patten.

Patten replied: "I'm a politician. My strategy is to get through to lunch."

Cowper-Coles found himself caught between Patten, who wanted to pioneer democracy in Hong Kong, and British diplomats fearful of angering China.

He said Patten dismissed those concerns as "Sinological claptrap" and relied instead on his own small team of advisers.

He also revealed that Patten, who wanted to entrench an independent judiciary, had not been informed by the Foreign Office about several high-level letters between Britain and China giving undertakings that Patten was unknowingly breaching.

The story confirmed an accusation by Chen Zuoer , former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, in his own recent book that Patten had no idea of the existence of seven letters exchanged between the foreign ministers of Britain and China in early 1990.

Cowper-Coles' book also reveals that Prince Charles topped a shortlist for governor of Hong Kong in 1987. The list was hastily drawn up by the Foreign Office on the instructions of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, following Edward Youde's death. She chose David Wilson, an expert on China, as governor. He was succeeded in 1992 by Patten, now chairman of the BBC Trust.

The memoir provides a glimpse of how different history might have been if the prince had taken over in the regal splendour of Government House in Hong Kong. Instead, Prince Charles led the British delegation at the handover of Hong Kong 10 years later.