Books: Home thoughts from the Governor

East and West by Chris Patten, Macmillan pounds 22.50
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The Independent Culture
The last Governor of Hong Kong might appear to have the devil's own luck. On 1 July 1997, the day after he handed the colony over to China and sailed away on the royal yacht, Britannia, Thailand devalued its currency, setting off a chain of economic explosions which is still reverberating around the world.

As Patten boasts in this book, the Hang Seng Index on the Hong Kong stock exchange was below 6,000 when he arrived in 1992 and more than 15,000 when he departed. Now it is below 8,000, and his Chinese successors are deserting Hong Kong's free-market principles in their largely unsuccessful attempts to intervene. If he had hoped that his subjects would remember him more fondly than their present rulers, the former Governor could hardly have timed his exit better.

The events of the past year-and-a-bit might also have been designed to prove that Asia has no magic formula for economic growth and social progress. The Mahathir Mohamads and Lee Kuan Yews have been a lot less vocal recently in claiming that if you want to imitate their success, you need to be sparing with the democracy. As someone who spent five years in charge of one of the "tiger" economies while espousing values very different from those of his neighbours, there must be a vast potential audience, not only in east Asia but elsewhere, for Patten's views on what went wrong.

Sadly, this book will disappoint most of its readers. It is a curious mixture: part reminiscence (though in his introduction the author denies that it is intended as a memoir), part lecture on economic theory - many sections sound as though they should be read aloud, and may well have been drawn from speeches - and part political manifesto. The title might lead one to expect a thesis about the political and economic relationship between West and East, but in fact they rarely meet. Patten writes mainly about West [itals]or East, and only occasionally about both.

The first section is a straightforward account of his time as Governor which reads strangely alongside the version published by Jonathan Dimbleby last year, only weeks after his subject left office. Patten was criticised for allowing Dimbleby to break confidentiality so soon after his term, but nobody could accuse him of the same thing here: for someone who can be gleefully malicious in person, his description of the same events is discreet to the point of dullness.

This is followed by a survey of the rise and temporary (in Patten's view) decline of the Asian tigers, most of which is devoted to an eloquent demolition of the claim that there is such any such thing as "Asian values" behind east Asia's spectacular rise. His relish is evident as he stamps on every aspect of this argument, but there are several problems. Indisputably authoritative on Hong Kong, he becomes less so the further he strays from the territory - ignoring, for example, the World Bank suggestion that provision of primary rather than secondary or tertiary education appears to be one key to the region's tigerish growth. The economic downturn has in any case blown away much of the crass overconfidence that supported the "Asian values" argument, and there is little danger now that the West would be tempted to imitate its proponents, leading one to wonder why Patten spends so much time on what he himself calls an "intellectually shallow" thesis.

More boldly, Patten seeks in the opening of his final section to prove the opposite thesis: that Western liberalism brings its own economic reward. The economic side of the case is impressively documented, but the liberalism amounts to a vaguely-defined belief in "openness" and - a favourite, over- used, word - "decency". In this book Patten comes across as more of an administrator, an excellent one, and less of a scholar than he would like one to believe. His experiences in Asia have made him believe in smaller, leaner government, and, somewhat unexpectedly, more pro-American and less instinctively European. But that is about it: he has read Confucius, and quotes him effectively to disprove those who would use the sage to claim that Asia has its own morality, but the last Governor is emphatically not a Sinologist.

It is in denouncing the Sinologists, in fact, that Patten's book comes to life. The last two chapters, in which he sets about the Foreign Office kowtowers and their political allies before putting forth his own robust views on how Britain and the West should deal with China, are by far the best. Here he is on firm ground, arguing from his own direct experience and dealing ungently with those who have never had to grapple with anything as complex and vibrant as Hong Kong.

Throughout the book, though, it is clear that Chris Patten does not intend the Governorship to be the last item on his CV. He has let it be known in the past week that he would be available to run for Parliament, and he takes care not to criticise openly those who still have influence. This is the work of a politician still seeking office, and as such it must be read.