Our book today is Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1997work The Last Governor, and it raises questions as old as Thucydides about the nature of writing history. Dimbleby’s subject is that thoroughly honorable rogue Chris Patten, who served as the last governor of Hong Kong and presided over the end of its long and storied life as a British colony. In the frenzied months leading up to the British consulate handing over control of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997, Patten (whose walking tours of the city enchanted many residents and infuriated the British press back home) did considerable public and behind-the-scenes scrambling on behalf of the citizens and merchants of Hong Kong – trying to ready them for the shock of the coming transition, and trying to wrangle the best ‘deals’ for them from their impending autocratic overlords.
Patten’s task was unprecedented in British history. Although some governors had overseen the transition of colonies to freedom, no previous governor had overseen the transition of a colony to another power (on such a large scale as the teeming, near-overwhelming city of Hong Kong, this has scarcely been done by any government in the history of the world – a free book to the first of you who mentions the most obvious parallel in history!). Patten did this with a minimum of pomp – he eschewed the governor’s elaborate ceremonial costume, much to the chagrin of traditionalists – and he faced several formidable obstacles, including the most formidable of all:
The trigger for the next stage was the official visit the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was due to make to Beijing in September 1982. Rather late in the day, the Foreign Office briefed her for the first time on the unappetising options facing her government. Three years into her premiership, Thatcher was not only viscerally opposed to communism but, fresh from leading Britain to victory against the Argentinian junta, she had also become the most charismatic leader of the ‘free world.’ In the view of one of her closest advisors on China, ‘This had left her with a great disposition to military solutions, tough solutions and a certain degree of suspicion of the Foreign Office.’ According to Sir Percy Cradock, Thatcher’s attitude towards the policy of the Foreign Office on Hong Kong was essentially: ‘Here is another colonial outpost they want to sell off.’
When the idea of simply signing over Hong Kong to mainland China was first brought to her attention, Thatcher teetered on the brink of outright refusal (of telling the Chinese to take a running jump, as one bemused insider put it at the time) – she only gradually came to realize that the island of Hong Kong could not possibly be defended militarily, let alone supplied daily with the food, water, and energy it got from the mainland. Necessity was, as always, the mother of intervention – Britain had to let go, and the goal became letting go with as much grace and control as possible.
This goal was at every step of the way rendered that much more difficult by China itself. The massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 only underscored a fact that Patten was never at luxury to forget: the Chinese authorities were not quirky or idiosyncratic – they were vicious and repressive. And they played a very twisty, very tricky brand of foreign policy, running hot then cold then neutral on virtually every measure Patten and his team introduced to insure the people of Hong Kong some kind of voice – some measure of freedom – in their new country.
In these efforts, Patten met with some grudging measures of success – and storms of criticism, which is where Thucydides comes in. Writing ‘contemporary history’ is an endeavor that’s always been fraught with peril – as Dimbleby is the first to point out. The author in this case was not only present in Hong Kong for much of what he describes, but he’s a friend of Patten and willingly admits the possibility that this has leaned a bit on his assessment of the last governor’s successes and failures. The book is a fantastic, utterly absorbing reading experience, and part of the fascination (a much smaller part, I think, than the author worried) is wondering just how much skepticism should accompany every page.
And as in the case of Thucydides (and the many later examples that have come along), ‘contemporary history’ has a salutary vulnerability: most of the participants in the events described are still alive to write letters to the editor, write rival accounts, and sue, sue, sue. Dimbleby writes with verve and hugely appealing humor about a sprawling cast of characters, from Thatcher (whom he thanks in a fulsome opening note) to Britain’s formidable ambassador to China, Sir Robin McLaren, to Deng Xiaoping to Tony Blair – and most of all about Patten himself, whose accomplishments he praises openly:
The transparency with which, for the first time in their history, a governor had conducted diplomacy on their behalf, had both exposed them to the arguments and included them in the dialogue. Again and again they had endorsed his stance, despite the verbal abuse Beijing had rained down on his head. By no stretch of a patronising imagination could they now be thought to be ‘sleepwalking’ into the unknown. Yet there was no evidence of panic; no rush for the boats.
So the Thucydidean question becomes: how much of The Last Governor do we believe? How much of it will stand as actual history, in twenty, thirty, or a hundred years? Patten is now Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and Margaret Thatcher is now Baroness Thatcher (and not expected to live out the year), and raucous, sinful old Hong Kong still benefits enormously from some of the systems Chris Patten helped to put in place. Our author believed in his man, as did some of the rest of us. We’ll just have to wait and see what future generations say. My money's on Dimbleby; we still read Thucydides.