The Book Murdoch Refused to Publish

Derek Davies was the former editor of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review for 25 years

Ironically, Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who refused to publish this admirable book on the spurious grounds that it was boring and that there were "negative aspects" in linking it with his company, HarperCollins, is the person most likely to gain materially from reading it. Already he has forfeited much respect, compensated Christopher Patten for the breach of contract and lost the services of his firm's senior editor, Stuart Proffitt (who objected to lying to Patten on Murdoch's behalf). Further profits have been wiped out by the departure from his lists of best-selling authors, headed by Jung Chang, whose phenomenally successful "Wild Swans" is to be followed shortly by a biography of Mao Tse-tung.

Murdoch opted out when, very belatedly, he realized that Patten's work was not likely to be Book of the Year among China's leaders, just as he had booted the BBC out of the satellite programs he was hoping to beam to the billion-odd potential consumers of China. However, the most cogent passages of "China, Power and the Future of Asia" constitute formidable arguments against kowtowing in either commercial or diplomatic relationships and in favor of dealing frankly and, when necessary, robustly with the Middle Kingdom.

From the moment China's leaders realized that the politician Britain had appointed as its last governor of Hong Kong was determined to push ahead with democratic reforms without obtaining their permission, Patten became one of history's most embattled colonial administrators. Chinese officials or Communist newspapers revived the uncivilized invective of the Cultural Revolution, denouncing him as a "jade prostitute" who would open his legs for anyone, as "the whore of the East" and as "a serpent." Lu Ping, head of the Chinese government department responsible for both Hong Kong and Macau, called Patten "a criminal who will be condemned for a thousand generations."

At the same time the British and Chinese business communities in Hong Kong, their eyes ever on the China market, joined in the chorus with depressingly few exceptions. The burden of their song was: "Patten is bad for business." Patten understands those who felt constrained to propitiate the powers-that-were-to-be but lambastes those who simply feared reform, who "were against competition, found monopolies extremely cozy, disliked open tendering (or open anything, for that matter) and believed that any regulation of markets or of corporate governance was thinly disguised socialism." He refuses to "personalize" the opposition by listing their names.

The Chinese authorities and the businessmen found anti-Patten allies among the Mandarinate of Sinologists of the British Foreign Office, experts who perhaps resented the loss of a plum job that had been in their gift to a mere politician. Again Patten names several of those "younger diplomatic Sinologists [who] after spending many character-forming years in the trenches negotiating with Peking had become hard-headed about China and the best way to do business with it." However, he does not identify those "vestiges of the old and very different orthodoxy" that lingered elsewhere in the Foreign Office, those who equated "diplomacy with being nice to foreigners" and those back in London who questioned, second-guessed and sabotaged the initiatives of the man in the field.

Patten does not even deign to mention the leader of this group, Sir Percy Cradock, a former ambassador to China who had been a special foreign policy advisor to prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. He and the then-governor of Hong Kong, David Wilson, had lost their jobs after Major's farcical visit to China in 1991 in a vain pursuit of Chinese cooperation in building the Hong Kong airport. His failure effectively demonstrated that the Foreign Office's policy of appeasement had failed to produce results. (Cradock had further infuriated Major by telling the press that the "cover story" for the visit--the human rights issue--was mere "froth.") Thereafter, in a series of articles, letters to the press and television and radio interviews, Cradock engaged in an unprecedented assault on Patten's policies, variously describing them as incompetent, stupid and "fatal."

Neither does Patten name a retired diplomat who supplied China's ambassador in London, then indulging in an energetic campaign of company boardroom intimidation, with a list of people to lobby. And Patten makes no attempt to assign blame for the Foreign Office's suspicious failure to brief him on a 1990 exchange of letters between Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and his Chinese opposite number, Qian Qichen, on the number of directly elected seats in the Legislative Council acceptable to China (20 in 1995, 30 by 2003), which could have been embarrassing had it involved a hard agreement.

Patten makes a telling point in identifying one diplomat--Sir Alan Donald, "one of the most amiable and experienced of 'old China hands' " and ambassador to China when Patten went there in May 1989 as minister for Overseas Development. Crowds of demonstrators were good-humoredly assembling in Tiananmen Square. Donald pointed out that the police were wearing sneakers: "You don't wear sneakers if you're going to stamp on people." He explained that they were witnessing a sophisticated Chinese drama in which all knew their parts. An accommodation would be reached enabling all concerned to save face, agreeing that the authorities, a la Sun-Tzu's "Art of War," would enfold dissent rather than confront it. This anecdotal demolishing of the Sinologist's habitual air of infallibility needs no mention of the ensuing massacre, but the comment that journalists present in the Chinese capital offered "a rather sourer opinion of the probable turn of events" twists the knife in the wound.

It would be wrong to give the impression that much of this book is devoted to refuting the author's critics. Possibly the greater part consists of an often passionate statement of Patten's positive political philosophy, summed up as: "Good government is synonymous with market economies and political pluralism" or, as Freedom House put it: "[d]emocracy, prosperity and economic freedom are all part of the same bundle."

Patten argues that once one begins to open up command economies--"to regenerate enterprise, to scrap regulations, to privatize industries, to curb inflation, to cut army bills, to fight corruption, to use prices to encourage farmers and food production, to welcome foreign investment, to invest in basic infrastructure and social development," a political agenda is also set. This dynamic process is underway in those East Asian economies that have rid themselves of the Cold War's dictators and is inevitable elsewhere in the region--not least in China, where a growing market economy will lead to political pluralism. Patten is impatient with diplomats and business people who cannot envisage such change and whose policies are geared to placate those doomed to become Yesterday's Men.

This political credo is bolstered by a devastating analysis of the illogic and hypocrisy of those aging authoritarians and their sycophants who propound so-called Asian values. Patten kicks off with an account of a visit by Lee Kuan Yew to Hong Kong during which the Singaporean chief minister violated every Confucian prescription for the conduct of a virtuous, generous and polite gentleman. While Patten sat there, Lee made a speech accusing his host of being an American cat's paw in a plan to infect China with democracy, words well calculated to feed Chinese paranoia about Hong Kong.

Patten examines the Asian values--obedience to elders and the state, the importance of the family, desire for consensus rather than confrontation, respect for education and so on--and shows them either to be unconfined to Asia or temporary phenomena or simply illusory. He is particularly effective at quoting Confucius as a champion of human rights and individual freedoms. Indeed he demonstrates that he is a quick study who has done his homework by introducing each of his chapters with apt quotations from the Master.

This is an engaging book, written with passion and panache, with wit and a politician's gift for the sound bite. "I have often noted that the greatest beneficiary of the patriarchal family was, not surprisingly, the patriarch," Patten writes. Behind the "sloppy smile" of the chief Chinese negotiator, Jiang Enzhu, "lurked the personality of a bureaucratic speak-your-weight machine." And on the uniqueness of his territory: "Hong Kong really is one of a kind: chop sui generic." At one point he produces a beautiful parody of a Foreign Office memorandum arguing why Lord Macartney, the first British envoy to the court of the Chinese emperor in 1793, should perform a ritual kowtow to the Yellow Throne.

It would be easier to appraise Patten's governorship if we were able to discount the series of economic crises that has wrought such havoc on East Asia and faded the stripes of so many tigers. Doubtless then we would be able to point out that his feisty stance had not been fatal; that the economy was flourishing and that China was handling the enclave with kid gloves. As it is, we can simply point out that so far Hong Kong's strong points, as reinforced by Patten, have helped it ride out the storm. The Hong Kong dollar (like the Chinese renminbi) has so far resisted devaluation, although a strong currency has not helped exports or tourism.

Doubtless the crisis necessitated much rewriting and rethinking. Most of the lessons to be learned, however, are grist to Patten's democratic mill. Today's financial typhoons were spawned by lack of transparency in official and business affairs, corruption, cronyism, overly grandiose schemes and many of the other ills he identifies, not only in East Asia but in the West. "The passions I encountered and to some extent engendered and the arguments in which I became embroiled . . . made me think more carefully about political and economic freedom than I would otherwise have done and made me concentrate on what I believe and why I believe it."

"China, Power, and the Future of Asia" does not fully reflect Asia's gift for pragmatism; Patten is an ideologue, however liberal his brand of Toryism. It is plainly a manifesto; the tone is statesmanlike; the message plain. British politics have not heard the last of Christopher Patten.

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