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The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong by Jonathan Dimbleby

22 November 2007

Thinking about the late Ian Smith has made me look back over my reviews and select a book that deals with decolonisation and the remnants of the British Empire — in this case, the last major imperial remnant.

The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong by Jonathan Dimbleby

I can remember watching the Hong Kong handover on television in July 1997, though I have to admit that I only had the vaguest notion of what was going on or what was the significance of the pomp and circumstance at the time. (Perhaps understandable, seeing as how I was several years away from being able to vote and was only just starting to take an interest in international politics.) The existence of Hong Kong and its status over the years is only generally included in most surveys of Chinese or British history, and even then not many people seem to know what to make of it. So when I came across a book that focused on the handover — and specifically focused on the role that Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last government, played in the transition period — I thought it would be a good way to fill out a blurry memory with a bit of historical context.

The Last Governor, as might be expected, centres on former Conservative MP Chris Patten’s time as governor of Hong Kong from 1992 (when he lost his seat as MP for Bath) to the end of British colonial rule on 1 July 1997. Quite a few diplomat-types regarded Patten as a strange and alarming choice for governor. Patten certainly wasn’t a sinologist, and he’d barely expressed any particular interest in China or Hong Kong during his time in Parliament. He was a career politician, not a career diplomat, and officials in London and Beijing seemed to share a genuine concern that Patten would try to ‘politicise’ his time as governor and meddle in the political and business negotiations that surrounded the process of Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese sovereignty. The operating thoughts of the officials was that the Hong Kong transition had to be as smooth and unruffled as possible in order to avoid possibly catastrophic effects on Hong Kong’s economy…so many of them were absolutely horrified when the new governor began to push for, well, more democracy in the administration of Hong Kong. With the handover only five years away and the Chinese government already suspicious of what they perceived to be British plans to promote subversion through increased democracy, Patten’s policies left him open to attacks from all quarters. Some officials on both sides definitely would have preferred it if Patten were replaced by a governor who would be friendlier to Chinese interests.

Critics of The Last Governor — most notably the British officials in the Foreign Office and elsewhere who come out looking like utter quislings in Dimbleby’s assessment of their actions — could quite easily subtitle the book ‘How Bloody Chris Patten Aggravated Everyone Under The Sun, Made Things A Billion Times More Difficult For All Of Us, And Didn’t Actually Do Anything Anyway’. For comparison purposes, I’d probably have to look at a book that is more critical of Patten’s stint as governor and see if the criticism of his actions is as convincing as Dimbleby’s defence. But the long and short of it seems to be that Chris Patten did his best to stand up for the people of Hong Kong and keep up a strong front until the very end. The last thing he wanted was to leave the British government open to the charge of cutting and running (a charge often levelled at it by anyone who found it expedient to do so), and he did everything in his power to prevent that. The handover of Britain’s last significant colonial possession has a long and tortuous history behind it, but Dimbleby’s book gives a brisk, journalistic account that should interest most anyone who might want to know more about the events leading up to 1 July 1997.

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