Chris Patten recalls ‘happiest years’ as last governor of Hong Kong ... with egg tarts, insults and a pirated memoir

He says political career has made him thick-skinned, and strained ties with state leaders during his stint did not mean he was anti-Chinese

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 10:31pm

Barely minutes into the interview, Chris Patten mentions the label once pinned on him – “a sinner for a thousand years”. One feels compelled to ask: is it an old wound that still hurts?

He brushes aside the question but returns to it later when the conversation turns to how China perceived him.

Soon after arriving in Hong Kong in 1992 as its last colonial governor, he introduced electoral reforms to give more people a chance to vote in nine new functional constituencies. To China, this was Britain handing over the poisoned chalice of democracy just as it was returning the city to mainland rule.

Incensed, China’s top man on Hong Kong, Lu Ping, blasted him as a sinner for breaching the Sino-British agreements and ruining a smooth handover. More labels heaped on by yet others included “prostitute” and “tango dancer”, Patten recalls.

“I’d been in democratic politics for years so I had quite a thick skin when it came to criticism. So I didn’t really mind that. But it was absurd for people to use that kind of Cultural Revolution abuse.”

He insists his electoral reforms were “extremely limited”. “I wasn’t Tom Paine or Georges Danton,” he says, referring to towering western revolutionaries.

Nevertheless, thanks to the Chinese name-calling, the impression stuck that he was a “great fighter for democracy”. He quips that the infamy boosted sales of his first memoir East and West.

He had to deal with China again when he was European Union Commissioner for External Affairs from 1999 to 2004. But this time, the Chinese treated him with utmost courtesy.

Recalling his first meeting with the Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, he says: “When we were shaking hands, he said to me, ‘This time, Peng Dingkang, we must cooperate.’ So I said, ‘But that was what I wanted to do last time.’ And he roared with laughter.” Peng Dingkang is Patten’s name in Putonghua.

Patten and Wilson: there’s work to be done for city’s democracy

None of the leaders he met raised his troubled tenure in Hong Kong. “As though it had been a sort of mild aberration of my past,” he says. “I think they realised pretty quickly that the view I’d taken in Hong Kong didn’t make me anti-Chinese; I’m anything but anti-Chinese.”

When he met then Chinese president Jiang Zemin, for example, he found him extremely gracious. Patten presented him with a collection of William Shakespeare’s plays and told Jiang he would probably enjoy the historical works because Shakespeare felt very strongly about the importance of political stability. “Jiang, to his credit, laughed; he got the point.”

But, more than Shakespeare, another book piqued his interest apparently. At the end of the visit, Jiang’s interpreter and private secretary sidled up to Patten and asked him to sign what he noticed to be a pirated copy, printed in Taiwan, of East and West. “Still, I was very happy to do it,” says Patten with a laugh.

How far should Britain go to ensure Joint Declaration promises are kept for Hong Kong?

Despite the vituperative attacks, he and his wife found their time in Hong Kong to be “the happiest years of our lives”.

The former governor, known for his penchant for egg tarts, says: “I love Hong Kong as a community, I love it as a place ... I love going back to eat the best Asian food – not just Chinese food – on the planet.”

Zuraidah Ibrahim is reporting from London