Chris Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries of 1997 handover run-up take us behind the scenes as Britain prepared to take leave of its last colony
Hong Kong handover anniversary
  • In this excerpt from his new book, the city’s last governor reveals how he really felt as Britain prepared for the transfer of sovereignty to China
Chris Patten

Sunday 1 June, 1997

Not just the last lap, but the final straight. We gave a barbecue for present and past private office staff, bodyguards and families at Fanling [Lodge]. We will miss them all a lot.

Monday 2 June

Anson [Chan Fang On-sang] has given an interview to Newsweek and they put her on the cover. It’s full of spirited stuff about standing up for Hong Kong’s freedoms and the importance of acting according to your conscience. It looks like the drawing of a line in the sand.

Coincidentally, Time have done a cover story on me for their international edition. I am sure that one of the things that most worries Anson is the feel already of a drift in standards.

I know that she makes this point to [the incoming head of the post-handover Hong Kong administration] C.H. [Tung]. But does he take any notice? Today he gave Hong Kong a lecture about how everyone should forget about 4 June [1989, the day of the Tiananmen Square crackdown].

The cover of Patten’s book.

We are starting to get a series of white-flag telegrams from the Beijing embassy and from London about the negotiations on the garrison and the handover ceremony in general.

It makes life particularly difficult for Hugh Davies [leader of the British team in the last Joint Liaison Group before the handover] and his colleagues in the JLG if every time they try to take a reasonably firm line with their Chinese opposite numbers they have their legs cut from under them. It doesn’t bode well for the work they have to continue to do for some time after 1997 in the JLG.

The impact of these limp arguments from London and the Beijing embassy is also starting to have an effect on any lingering confidence which civil servants like Anson and her colleagues may have in the dependability of British understanding (and, if necessary, action) after July.

One or two of our senior Hong Kong civil servants have been saying that they sympathise more and more with [legislator] Emily Lau’s frequently expressed view that you can never trust the Brits. As head of the Hong Kong civil service, Anson is sufficiently worried about the way things are going that she has fired off a personal telegram herself to [British Foreign Secretary] Robin Cook.

Tuesday 3 June

Among the many farewell lunches and dinners I went for a meal with the EU consuls-general. I gave the assembled diplomats a working over about how pathetic most European countries have been over Hong Kong, telling them that my Chinese officials who are staying on after the handover aren’t going to take declarations of European concern over Hong Kong remotely seriously.

I suppose the flavour of these remarks may get back to capitals, though it won’t make any difference.

Thursday 5 June

There’s a final meeting with the heads of civil service departments and a lunch at which Anson makes a lovely speech. Lots of tears all round. In the evening, Exco gave me a dinner at the Grand Hyatt.

When I look back on nearly five years with (mostly) this team of advisers, what is most surprising is that we’ve never had a really ill-natured discussion, despite all the problems. I must say that I’ve been much more relaxed with this group since [chairman of HSBC bank] Willie Purves left and Rosanna Wong became the senior member.

There has never been a sense that any of the present Exco members brought their own agenda to the table or were pursuing all sorts of serpentine activities outside.

Chris Patten shares a laugh with Prince Charles at Government House on June 28, 1997, two days before the handover, as Edward Leong Che-hung, Legislative Council member representing the medical constituency, looks on. Photo: AFP

Wednesday 11 June

The slither and slide in London continues. They don’t really take any notice at all now of what we have to say. Here we are, leaving Hong Kong in pretty good shape without years of domestic rows, demonstrations, turbulence, shaking fists, and you’d think this had been accomplished by the sort of diplomacy that came so naturally to some of those officials.

It’s also worth pointing out that we are leaving our last major colony without the rest of the world thinking we have behaved badly. But there is no last ditch that some officials wouldn’t abandon.

I don’t blame ministers. I think they believe that if we have a better relationship with the Chinese themselves, they will be able to do more for Hong Kong. But they’ll be advised the whole time that if they do or say anything about Hong Kong’s freedoms and democracy, they will annoy the Chinese leaders.

Officials have slipped effortlessly into the vacuum created after the election. Anyway, [Prime Minister] Tony Blair has announced he is coming for the handover and I don’t imagine that he will want to be any part of Britain seeming to be humiliated by Beijing.

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I made my last visit before the end of the month to the convention centre and the airport. They are both astonishing examples of what Hong Kong is able to do in a short time.

When Lavender and I went on holiday in July 1994, work on creating the island base for the convention centre had only just been started. Now the whole spectacular edifice is complete. And work on the airport had only just begun when we arrived in 1992; it will be opened next April despite all the rows with China.

Lords Howe and MacLehose have made disobliging speeches in a Lords debate saying that there wasn’t much wrong with the provisional Legco. I wonder if Geoffrey [Howe], who is not at all a bad egg, ever goes back and looks at what was promised, not least by him, in the House of Commons and in Hong Kong about democracy and the Joint Declaration in the mid-1980s.

Patten with wife Lavender and two of their three daughters, Laura and Alice, arrive for his swearing-in ceremony as Hong Kong governor on July 9, 1992. Photo: Getty Images

Thursday 12 June

There’s been a so-called experts’ meeting on the early arrival of the garrison. The Chinese JLG leader started the meeting by saying that they would like our ideas about how they could best get 3,000 soldiers into position on 30 June. This is what they take from their meetings with our ambassador in Beijing.

Hugh Davies tells them that it had surely been agreed that Chinese experts would brief us on their own plans. When was the briefing to be? Stalemate. End of meeting.

We’re also told that they’re intending that Jiang Zemin and other senior leaders should arrive in a huge new yacht which is presumably intended to win the ‘ours is bigger than yours’ competition.

Tuesday 17 June

Lavender and I flew to Macau for a farewell dinner with the governor, [Vasco Rocha] Vieira, and his wife, Leonor. They have become good friends. He’s greyer than he was with big black bags under his eyes – and he’s still got 2½ years to go.

I guess we know more about the impossibilities of our respective positions than anyone else. Here we are, on this strange Chinese shore, trying to bring a decent end to our respective countries’ colonial histories.

I had an enjoyable lunch on that day with a group of trade unionists who are members of Legco. It’s better to have praise from them than from a bunch of property developers.

After my last Legco Q and A session today, there was a lunch with Legco members past and present where I was presented with a pewter tankard. Asked in the chamber what I would have done if I’d been Prime Minister, I reply that the way things have turned out in the UK, I’d certainly have appointed myself Governor of Hong Kong.

The greatest stroke of luck that I’ve enjoyed here is having Anson [Chan] as my number two. She is one of the nicest and bravest people I’ve ever known, and she’s become a firm friend
Chris Patten

Tsang Yok-sing, the leader of the DABHK [Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong], makes a characteristically brave speech paying tribute to some aspects of British administration and of my governorship. There is even applause in the chamber, something I haven’t heard before.

Our last formal dinner at GH [Government House] was another goodbye to Exco. They have stuck by me through thick and thin.

Friday 20 June

JLG experts are still locking horns over the advance arrival of Chinese troops. The Chinese are now looking for some sort of face-saving formula. We’ve obviously managed to beat them down quite a long way.

I think we should be able to get the numbers down to about 500, with a few at Prince of Wales barracks in the middle of Central and the rest at Stanley and in the New Territories. It won’t look very good, but it could be much worse.

An engaging conversation with Henry Kissinger on Friday afternoon. He’s had a talk to C.H., whom he found ‘cocky’.

Sunday 22 June

Lavender told me to prepare myself for a secret treat. We were driven off after breakfast and fetched up at the Catholic church at Sha Tin. It was packed and the congregation gave us a great ovation. At the front were the Hong Kong Sinfonia, its full choir and four soloists. What was this all about?

Then I saw David Tang, his girlfriend, Lucy, Simon Murray, Dominic Lawson and his wife, Rosa (they are staying with David again), and Cheung Man Yee. David handed me a sheet of paper with notes on the Haydn Nelson Mass. So here we were, Sunday mass with the full Haydn works.

Most of our favourite priests had been recruited to come to concelebrate the occasion – Peter Barry, Peter Newberry, Jim Huvane, Sean Burke – and the parish priest Father Ahearne. It was completely wonderful.

(From left) Laura, Chris, Lavender and Alice Patten in Singapore before their first arrival in Hong Kong on July 7, 1992. Photo: Robert Ng

Monday 23 June

It’s a ‘lasts of everything’ week. And planning and organisation for the farewell, the departure and the launching of the SAR government are becoming ever more demanding and even more frenetic.

Chinese secretiveness and bureaucratic incompetence risk throwing everything into chaos. The Chinese are still producing lists of guests whom they want invited to events. But they seem to have given up on the idea of the vast yacht. What a mess. Our team of officials is working literally around the clock and are all dog-tired.

The weather is awful, leaden skies, rolls of thunder and swampy heat. At Exco, the main issue was about de-registering a company called Rex, which is involved in weapons proliferation, especially chemical weapons. It’s plainly a front for the main Chinese arms dealer and manufacturer, Norinco.

The papers have all come through for this decision to be taken this week, and I’m also being pressed to close down an Iranian bank which has been funding the proliferation exercise along with the Bank of China.

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I’m prepared to act against the company even though it is so late in the day. But to hit the bank, which has local creditors, risks provoking an 11th-hour bank run that would look to the Chinese like a final British ‘petty trick’. It will be an interesting test of the new SAR government’s resolve to protect Hong Kong’s reputation as a reliable partner in the strategic trade field.

Tuesday 24 June

Last night we had a big reception for all our Government House and Fanling staff and their families: gardeners, cooks, stewards, laundry workers, cleaners, electricians and so on. Tonight it was a final dinner given by Anson at Victoria Lodge, her official residence, for some of our closest friends and their spouses.

The greatest stroke of luck that I’ve enjoyed here is having Anson as my number two. She is one of the nicest and bravest people I’ve ever known, and she’s become a firm friend.

Wednesday 25 June

A day full of interviews and a rather unpleasant meeting with Lee Kuan Yew. He berated Anson for her Newsweek interview suggesting that C.H. didn’t know very much about the way the government works.

I pointed out that civil servants in Hong Kong have always had a more public role than in Britain for example. Anson in particular is regarded by the public as the main custodian of their liberties and the standards and integrity of government.

He brushed all this aside and slid into the mode he likes best – monologue. I increasingly wonder whether Lee would know a civil liberty if it hit him over the head with a truncheon.

Thursday 26 June

My monthly radio talks on the radio – ‘Letters to Hong Kong’ – have been published today. I’ve attempted to encourage Hong Kong people to stand up for themselves, and for the values which have made Hong Kong such a special and successful place.

Between all my interviews today was a call from the bully of the Lower Remove, Henry Keswick, to grumble again that we haven’t given sufficient help to Jardine’s, specifically in freeing them from the ambit of the Hong Kong takeover code.

Actually we expended huge quantities of effort on this issue. I steadfastly refused to overrule the independent regulator or try to push him to do what he believed would be contrary to the law. It would have been disastrous for me and disastrous for Jardine’s as well had we done so, a point completely lost on Keswick.

We go round the same old bushes, both keeping our tempers more or less.

I wrote to Tung [Chee Hwa] today wishing him well. I do. I got him into this in the first place
Chris Patten

Henry departed, full of anecdotes about C.H. Tung’s alleged commercial dishonesty. All this means is that they had some kind of a row over money. For perhaps understandable reasons, while knowing nothing about all this, I feel an instinctive sympathy for the CE designate.

Like some other big men, Henry wears soft little slippers and moves light-footed, heading off down the hill to abuse me again – and I assume as a vocation for evermore – once he is off the premises.

I am sure that he will try to exact a price for the fact that I failed to comprehend that the whole purpose of the British Empire was to increase his personal fortune. Jardine’s is pretty well managed by competent people both here and in other countries – it doesn’t need special favours to make its lavish profits.

Friday 27 June

I rose early and went to the RTHK Studios for my last phone-in programme. There was only one hostile question in an hour and a quarter. We had our last district visit, to Kowloon, which goes as well as ever.

[Aide-de-camp] Lance arrived this evening to take [the Pattens’ pet dogs] Whisky and Soda for their flight to France, but their departure has been delayed for 48 hours because of an air strike. The stewards are delighted. One says, ‘We’ll miss them. They are like our children.’

Saturday 28 June

I went to the airport this morning to meet the Prince of Wales and Robin Cook, and escorted the Prince, who is as ever charming, to Britannia, which arrived earlier in the week. She is moored at Tamar along with the Type 22 frigate Chatham, which is really a light cruiser, both looking very handsome.

We still haven’t resolved all the outstanding issues with the Chinese about the handover and departure. They are pressing for the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to go and visit Jiang Zemin and Li Peng at their hotel on Kowloon side, and also for the Prince of Wales to call on Jiang at the convention centre since he is junior in protocol terms. But, of course, I insist that he should take precedence since Britain is sovereign until midnight.

We are working on a compromise under which they both arrive at the same room at the same time.

Patten photographed at his home in London in 2017. Photo: AFP

As for the arrival of their garrison, they’ve told us that 21 armoured cars will arrive with 4,000 troops, warships and helicopters at dawn on 1 July. Armoured cars! So much for the argument that if we were accommodating about a pre-midnight arrival, they would scale down their post-midnight plans.

The Prince of Wales did an investiture before the Queen’s Birthday Party reception in the late afternoon. Everyone was there, including the Democrats, for a change. The Royal Hong Kong Police Force band beat the retreat on the lawn at the back of the house.

As the Union Flag came down to the sound of ‘The Last Post’, strong men bit their lips. Then the Prince gave a grand dinner on Britannia for the great and good of Hong Kong, with my Exco and senior officials as the core guests. The Prince works hard, making a real effort with C.H. Tung and his wife. I wrote to Tung today wishing him well. I do. I got him into this in the first place.

Sunday 29 June

I did several interviews, including Breakfast With Frost before we went off to our last 9:30 mass at the Catholic cathedral. It’s the feast of St Peter and St Paul. Lavender and I are asked to do the readings. The second reading is from Paul to Timothy and is all about ‘fighting the good fight’ and ‘winning one’s crown’. I ask Lavender to do that one!

The priest, Father Hanley (with whom Peter Barry concelebrates), preaches a nice sermon about love and service and ends with a story which is his response to questions about the future of Hong Kong.

A small boy approaches an old man with cupped hands held in front of him and says, ‘I have a small bird here. Is it alive or dead?’ The old man knows that if he answers ‘alive’, the boy will crush the bird, if ‘dead’ the boy will open his hands and that the bird will fly free. So the old man says, ‘You have the life of the bird in your hands. You can crush it. Or if you want, it can fly.’ Thus the responsibilities that belong to the people of Hong Kong.

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On Britannia there is a dinner for the international grandees. I watched [former Prime Minister] Ted Heath, who was with the Russian Foreign Minister, [Yevgeny] Primakov. So far as I can tell, he says nothing all evening sitting like an Easter Island statue.

The high spot of my evening was a chat before dinner to [US secretary of state] Madeleine Albright, who said all the right things about decency and freedom. She’s clearly somewhat sceptical about Hong Kong’s prospects. Tonight will be my last night’s sleep in Hong Kong.

Monday 30 June

I woke as I have for weeks at about 4:15am, my arms and hands rigid with adrenaline. Madeleine Albright came in at 9 o’clock and we had a good round-the-houses talk about benchmarks for the future. She will keep the [US] State Department switched on to Hong Kong, though I think they are anyway predisposed that way. We then rushed off to the airport to greet the Blairs and their entourage.

We got back for a briefing at [senior trade commissioner] Francis Cornish’s apartment. There were still some complex negotiations about the formal meetings. I warned that they would be completely vacuous occasions, but I don’t suppose that matters.

The message for the day was, ‘we are making a fresh start with China’, as Robin Cook made clear when he joined us. The Prime Minister took me on one side and said that he hoped they could square this message with the expression of a lasting commitment to Hong Kong. I think he’s genuine about this and that he is trying to be courteous to me as well.

The Prince of Wales was the real man of the hour … he stepped bravely and uncovered to the lectern, the rain cascading from the cap onto his naval uniform … He deserved 10 out of 10 for sangfroid
Chris Patten

We organised a walk about in the Pacific Place shopping mall afterwards for the Blairs, Lavender and me. I’m not sure that his officials, especially his press man, Alastair Campbell, quite knew what to expect. There were huge crowds of well-wishers all pressing forward to be touched or spoken to.

Spontaneous applause welled up through the galleried mall as we waved and pressed the flesh. There were shouts of, ‘we’ll miss you’ – which the Blairs clearly think were directed at them. We stomped and stormed our way through the crowds with Tony and Cherie in the lead. They appeared delighted and surprised by the reception.

Back at GH, we bade farewell one by one to the stewards. The staff were then all drawn up in a mighty circle in the hall and we went as a family person to person shaking hands. Tears dripped freely onto what will soon be Mrs Tung’s carpets.

Then, everyone left for the ceremony outside, before Lavender, Kate, Laura, Alice and I – one glance back at a home where we’d been so happy – stepped outside this into a light drizzle for the last ceremony at the house.

It was simple and moving. I left the house through an honour guard of police, stepped onto a dais, accepted a royal salute with the National Anthem playing, watched a display of silent drill and then stepped down to say farewell to all my honorary ADCs.

Back on the dais, the band played ‘Sunset’, and ‘The Last Post’ as the Union Flag on the balcony over the front porch was lowered for the last time. As the flag was folded and brought down to me, the pipes of the police band played my favourite ‘Highland Cathedral’. Lance, my tough and very competent ADC, who’s been like a friend and brother to me, handed me the flag, my flag.

Patten receives the Union Flag after it was lowered for the last time at Government House during a farewell ceremony on June 30, 1997. Photo: AFP

The farewell ceremony itself went well, despite or maybe because of the weather – children, choirs, ‘Nimrod’, bands, bands, gun salutes, marching, dancing and Hong Kong’s best rain. It tipped down harder and harder but everyone kept going cheerfully.

In the front row of the main stand, we weren’t properly covered and got wetter and wetter. Despite the attempt by Laura, sitting beside him, to shield the Prime Minister with her umbrella, by the time he went off for his bilateral with Jiang he was completely drenched.

I made a speech halfway through and cut short the ovation. The Prince of Wales was the real man of the hour. Shortly before he got up to speak, the rain began to pelt down even harder, monsoon style.

‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘I knew this would happen.’ But he stepped bravely and uncovered to the lectern, the rain cascading from the cap onto his naval uniform. He was barely able to turn the sodden pages of his speech. He deserved 10 out of 10 for sangfroid.

After getting into some dry clothes, we returned to join the pre-dinner reception at the convention centre. I was able to shake hands with one sheepish Chinese official after another. Those who had declined to come near me for years were obliged ­– embarrassed, slightly crestfallen, even nervous – to accept the cheery salutations of the triple violator.

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All my pals from the North were there – Qian Chichen, Lu Ping, Zhou Nan, (former Ambassador) Ma Yuzhen. At the end of the banquet, served and eaten in record time, I joined Robin Cook to go and meet Jiang Zemin at the entrance. He clambered slowly out of the Mercedes, Ronnie Corbett with trousers at half-mast.

We took him upstairs for a meeting of fatuous irrelevance. Jiang, Li Peng, Zhou Nan, C.H. Tung and others sat in a line opposite the Prince, Blair, Cook, the Chief of Defence Staff and me. Jiang then read some bloviate stuff about ‘one country, two systems’.

As the Prince replied rather well, without any script (partly about the agreement we had made in the Joint Declaration), Tony Blair whispered to me, ‘Shall I speak?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘go next.’ And he did with a suitable follow-up to the Prince’s off-the-cuff remarks. At which point, Li Peng said that Hong Kong should be ‘a bridge, not a barrier’, a phrase which the Chinese have picked up from Robin Cook as the new mantra.

And that was it. Meeting over. As I looked at these clapped-out old tyrants, I thought to myself, ‘Why do we allow ourselves to be bullied by these people? Most of them are not remotely impressive and are scared stiff of the world. All they can do is bully.’

There weren’t many signs of grace and natural authority. I am sure that we would have felt differently if I’d been looking at Qiao Shi or Zhu Rongji.

Lavender and I gave the girls a hug, and went down to bed. I was tired. Tired but more deeply happy than I have ever been. The job was done. Lavender and I were going home.
Chris Patten

And last, the handover itself. A stiff little ceremony, best got over with as quickly as possible. I looked back at the senior guests on the Chinese side, arranged in their egg box stand, the coelacanths of Leninism, rich, mighty, a bit seedy, cruel, corrupt, depressingly unimpressive. Jiang shouted his guttural speech, clapping himself and being clapped dutifully in all the right places by the Chinese guests.

Then the Chinese honour guards goose-stepped about and, with our flag lowered and theirs raised, it was time for us all to shake hands and for us to get out as quickly as we could, leaving Heath, Howe and Heseltine to salute the new order and the provisional Legco.

Howe has been phoning up journalists saying what a tragedy it is that I chose not to be DeKlerk to Mandela. What does this c*** mean? Who is Mandela? Jiang or Li Peng?

At the quayside, lots of our friends had gathered to give Lavender and even me a last hug. (‘They all said they played tennis with you,’ said the Prince.) All my policy secretaries and Exco members, and a number of other senior officials, had hurried to the quay by coach, which can’t have been a very politically correct thing to do. We hugged them too. I kissed Anson for the first time and wished her luck.

A few handshakes with a bemused group of Chinese officials led by their Vice Foreign Minister, and then last goodbye to Robin Cook and his cheerful doctor wife, Margaret, who kissed me on both cheeks.

Lavender and the girls, who all looked fantastic, went up the royal ramp ahead of me, faces crumpled with emotion and streaked with tears. I walked up last, just before the Prince, turning to wave as the band on Britannia played ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

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And so it ended. We pulled away from the quay, the crowd cheered and waved, singing ‘Rule Britannia’. Followed by Chatham and our escorting patrol craft, we pulled into midstream and drove down the harbour through a canyon of light, every window seeming to explode with the flashbulbs of cameras.

A flotilla of small vessels followed as far as the Lei Yue Mun gap, where crowds lined the shore and cheered the departing oppressors. Then we sailed off into the night and the empty sea.

Lavender and I gave the girls a hug, and went down to bed. I was tired. Tired but more deeply happy than I have ever been. The job was done. Lavender and I were going home.

Extracted from The Hong Kong Diaries, by Chris Patten, published by Penguin Allen Lane. Copyright © Chris Patten 2022.