Realist who had to choose between bad and worse
The problems that haunted Percy Cradock, the architect of Britain's policy for Hong Kong's return to the mainland who died on January 22, remain with us to this day. The bitter differences between Cradock and the last governor, Chris Patten, foreshadowed the deep chasms between the so-called pro-Beijing camp and the pan-democrats today. The bitterness often boiled over into personal animosities, with each side accusing the other of bad faith. Last week's move by five pan-democrat lawmakers - to resign and then contest their seats to make it a de facto referendum on democracy - is but the most recent example of the divisions that are threatening to tear apart our body politic.
A career diplomat, Cradock had long warned of the consequences of failing to reach an understanding with Beijing based on negotiations. Any unilateral action, such as the expansion of voting rights under democratic reforms launched by Patten during the last years of British rule, was bound to provoke Beijing's ire and to be reversed after 1997, he felt. Ever a realist, he accepted Beijing essentially held all the cards, thus his early advice to his boss, the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, not to try to hold on to all or even some parts of Hong Kong.
In his political world-view there were no absolutes, only grey areas and less bad options, especially when it came to Hong Kong. A man who cut his teeth as a diplomat by witnessing the British chancery being burned to the ground at the height of the Cultural Revolution knew at first hand the tragedy of modern China. He believed Hong Kong people needed safety and stability above all. What he underestimated was the emergence of an educated and sophisticated middle class which was ready to demand civil liberties for themselves and political change on the mainland.
Hong Kong people stood up and forced the shelving of plans to legislate against subversion and sedition under Article 23 of the Basic Law; they have demanded universal suffrage and been promised by Beijing they could have it in 2017 and 2020 elections. We will, perhaps, know then whether Cradock was right.