Never mind the language, it’s the truth that counts

Obituaries of former deputy Xinhua chief Zhang Junsheng recall his colourful comments on last Hong Kong governor Chris Patten; they should not detract from his wise warning at the time 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 2:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 2:57am

Old communists had an unfortunate habit of using colourful language when they got mad. Sadly, their denouncements often got in the way of their messages, which could be perfectly valid.

Almost every newspaper obituary of Zhang Junsheng, the former deputy Xinhua chief who has died aged 82, mentions his calling the last colonial governor Chris Patten “a prostitute who wanted an arch erected in her honour as a chaste woman”. It’s an old Chinese saying, in case you are wondering.

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It was the same when Lu Ping, former head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, died in 2015. Every report faithfully recalled him denouncing Patten as “a sinner of a thousand epochs”. That’s an old Chinese phrase as well!

All this reinforces the subtext that they were communist hacks out to subvert democracy that the great Patten was trying to bestow on Hong Kong as the last act of British colonialism. But drop the crude language, and what they actually warned against was perfectly true.

Patten’s unilateral reform to give more than a million electors a vote in nine new functional constituencies breached the Basic Law, which required “gradual and orderly” democratic development in reference to “the actual situation”.

It was also guaranteed to scupper Sino-British cooperation, sustained against great odds over a decade after the signing of their Joint Declaration. Most importantly, as a purely practical matter, Beijing would simply overturn it come July 1, 1997.

Their warnings, in fact, were a no-brainer. They formed the consensus of the time, not only among communist officials such as Zhang and Lu, but also the late lawmaker and social welfare champion Elsie Tu and Percy Cradock, one of Margaret Thatcher’s most influential foreign affairs advisers, and the British Foreign Office. Yet Patten went ahead, and produced a controversy that came to naught and was at best a footnote in the political history of Hong Kong.

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Today, every eligible elector in Hong Kong can vote in Legco elections, through the five so-called “super seats” and their own geographical constituencies. These had nothing to do with Patten; the five super seats were the outcome of negotiations between Beijing and the Democratic Party, for which the latter has been paying a steep electoral price ever since.

Patten has mesmerised a generation of Hong Kong people. Clear-sighted historians in future will treat people like Zhang, Lu and Cradock much more kindly.