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Patten opposes HK independence, but ask what if…


Editor's Note:Last Governor, Lord Patten spoke at the House of Lord debate in London on Thursday, October 24. Below is the full text of his speech.

By Chris Patten

I think my interests are all registered, not least the fact that, like my friend the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, I had the privilege of being Governor of Hong Kong for five years, the greatest privilege I have ever had.

The joint declaration incorporating "one country, two systems" was an extraordinary clever, adept way of coping with an issue that was politically and morally difficult for both China and the United Kingdom. It was morally difficult for China because it knew that more than half the population of Hong Kong were refugees from events in China under a communist regime. It was morally difficult for Britain because it was pretty well our only colony that we were not preparing for independence with democratic structures. When occasionally in the 1960s and 1970s Britain talked about greater democracy in Hong Kong, Chinese officials, including, famously, Zhou Enlai, made it clear they did not want that, because it would give people in Hong Kong the idea that they were going to turn out something like Singapore or Malaysia one day—an independent country.

Moreover, it was always the Chinese Government's position that the future of the people in Hong Kong was nothing to do with the people of Hong Kong. It all had to be determined by the British and Chinese Governments. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that for a dozen or more years after 1997, one country, two systems worked extraordinarily well. There was some rowing back by the Chinese Government on the pledges they had made on the introduction of greater democracy in Hong Kong, saying at a number of points that this was a matter for people in Hong Kong. The joint liaison office, their main point of contact in Hong Kong, threw its weight around too much, but by and large things went pretty well. I think the caesura in Hong Kong, and in the development of China, in the past few years has been the election of Xi Jinping as head of the Communist Party and President of China. Just as that has changed attitudes to economic matters in China, it has had an impact on political issues as well. There has certainly been a tightening of Beijing's control over Hong Kong in the past few years.

That is the backdrop to what has happened since the extraordinarily foolish introduction of the extradition Bill. That was seen, not just by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong but by the business community, as an attempt to dismember the firewall between the rule of law in Hong Kong and whatever passes for the law—I note what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, had to say—in mainland China. We saw the huge demonstrations, which began peacefully but have unfortunately developed a violent edge in the past few months. Bear in mind that this has been going on for four months now.

I commend to the House an extremely good article in Asian Affairs by a retired Hong Kong police officer about what has happened in dealing with those demonstrations. First, he pointed out that, starting with the demonstrations on 12 June, which were around the government buildings, the police began to target not just the people behaving violently but a lot of those who were being perfectly peaceful. Secondly, we had the appalling affair in the MTR station and Yuen Long in July, when it was plainly the case that triads and other gangsters were used to beat up demonstrators to help in the policing. All those issues, along with the broader economic and social matters, justify establishing a commission of inquiry. That has been pressed for some months, including by the former Chief Justice Andrew Li and others. It is the most sensible way forward, and I implore the Government to do that in Hong Kong.

I also implore the demonstrators to recognise that they play into the hands of the Communist Party when they are violent. However, you have to understand that, when you say to them, "You will lose the moral high ground if you behave violently", they say, "If we are on the moral high ground, who will be there with us? Who will be talking to us?", because nobody addresses them or tries to form some sort of consensus with them. They are also extremely critical of the way the demonstrations have been policed, which has not been the greatest example of the behaviour of what used to be—and I hope still will be—a great Asian police force.

I will say three things in conclusion. First, I implore not just the demonstrators to give up the violence, but also Beijing to give the Government in Hong Kong, whether Carrie Lam or anybody else, the elbow room to make some accommodations with the demonstrators. Secondly, I implore the Chinese Government to behave more sensibly in general; most of us have received a rather impertinent letter this morning from the Foreign Ministry, which is a very good example of how the Chinese think that international laws and treaties they have signed must be followed by everybody else but not by them. Lastly, I refer to the Foreign Minister saying that all this has been whipped up by the CIA and foreign forces. It is always a weakness of authoritarian regimes that they do not understand what is happening below. That always causes difficulties.

I have one final point—I am sorry for going on for slightly longer than I should have. In 2016 I made a speech in Hong Kong saying that I would always support movements for democracy but was totally against any efforts to campaign for independence for Hong Kong, because it was not going to happen and it would be immoral of me to support it. Joshua Wong and others said, "Would you go along and talk to students, and say exactly the same thing?" I addressed 700 students at the University of Hong Kong and made those same points; I did the same the following year, and in between nobody from the Government had talked to them.

At the end of that first session, the students said to me, "It's all very well, Governor Patten, you coming along and making those sorts of remarks, but what happens if the Chinese continue to squeeze us? What will the rest of the world do? What will you do in Britain? What will the United States do? What will Europe do? What will you do personally?" It is a very good question.


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