David Wilson reflects on his time as former governor of Hong Kong: ‘It was the most worthwhile job in the world’
Penultimate colonial governor David Wilson remembers meeting Xi Jinping’s ‘extremely interesting’ father, drafting the Sino-British Joint Declaration and his confidence that China will keep its promises
Arthur’s Seat near the centre of Edinburgh is a trek David Wilson is familiar with as the spritely 82-year-old hikes there often when he is in native Scotland. What took him by surprise one day though was when he, in a tracksuit soaked with sweat, got stopped by a group of young Hongkongers.
“Gong duk, is it you?” they called after him in amazement in Cantonese.
“I said to them: ‘How on earth did you recognise me?’” Wilson said in an interview with the Post. “‘Did you know I live in Edinburgh?’ I asked them. They didn’t. Well, they were extremely young when I left Hong Kong.
“I said I was not gong duk anymore,” he said laughing, referring to his previous official title of “Governor of Hong Kong” in Cantonese.
That’s just one – and, in Wilson’s own words – “classic” example of how he has been remembered since leaving in 1992 after five years as the penultimate colonial governor.
Looking back, Wilson says he has all along been optimistic about China’s willingness to keep its promises.
“I’m basically an optimistic person,” says Wilson, now a member of the House of Lords, with his title Lord Wilson of Tillyorn. “In the years when I was governor, there was almost every day when somebody came up to me and said, ‘You know, it’s not going to work. How is it going to possibly work?’ And I would say, ‘I believe the Chinese government have committed themselves to doing this. I believe it is going to work.’”
Hong Kong is marking its 20th post-colonial year on July 1, an event that will be presided over by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On Xi’s visit to the UK in 2015, Wilson was one of six members of Parliament to have a short chat with him as he took a tour of the Westminster building.
“An example of just how old I am, I was able to tell him I knew his father, Xi Zhongxun,” Wilson says, adding he met the patriarch in 1979 when he, as political adviser to Murray MacLehose, accompanied the then governor on his first visit to China.
“We had dinner with him [the elder Xi]. I found him an extremely interesting man talking about what life had been like when he was under house arrest,” he said. “And the books he’d read – he read a huge number of books. He read all sorts of things.”
But apart from describing Xi the president as “interesting” and “impressive” – and recalling his tough life as a teenager – Wilson does not want to be drawn into discussing the man’s possible influence in Hong Kong affairs.
If anything, he has the answer in his heart. If there are labels that last longer than one’s career, Wilson is a Sinologist. But his path to being an expert on China was less straightforward than a trek up Arthur’s Seat. As a novice diplomat joining the Foreign Office, Wilson wanted to learn Arabic, because that was the only language taught outside Britain – in Beirut.
“When I got there – I’d gone climbing in the Alps by the way – I was told by the head of the language school … ‘Terribly sorry. You’re not going to learn Arabic. You are to go to Laos because it’s [facing] a threat of North Vietnamese invasion.’”
He went on to fall in love with Asia and requested, towards the end of his brief Laotian encounter, to study Chinese. He was assigned to the University of Hong Kong in the 1960s.
In the 1980s, he was head of the British side of the working group engaged in drafting the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and then, in 1984, the first senior British representative on the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group . When Edward Youde died in Beijing in December 1986, Wilson replaced him as governor.
“For someone like me, who would study Chinese and had plenty of my time involved in China, you can’t honestly think of a better, more interesting, more worthwhile job in the world than being governor of Hong Kong,” he says. “It’s very hard to imagine because it’s a sort of job that no longer exists.”
What still exists as a result of the governor’s decisions is Hong Kong International Airport, which he decided to press on with despite Chinese – and even British – opposition. The decision was made not long after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, which prompted many Hongkongers to fear and even reject the already settled plan to transfer the city’s sovereignty in 1997.
Another feature lies in the hills. As the namesake of the Wilson Trail – the 78km long hike spanning eight country parks – he remains very proud of it and its meaning to the city’s countryside.
“The Maclehose Trail was I think a great thing, and that Maclehose is a great man,” he says of his predecessor. “But if I was going to have a trail, it should go the other way, the opposite way, and they should cross over, and it should be slightly harder than the Maclehose Trail.”
Because? “Just because.”