Books: Compassion fatigue

Denis MacShane asks why we excuse China's cruelty; Beating the Retreat: Hong Kong under the last Governor by Tim Heald, Sinclair- Stevenson, pounds 20 Hong Kong Goes Back edited by Judith Vidal-Hall and Yang Lian, Index on Censorship, pounds 7.99

When will the world wake up about China? The vileness and brutality of apartheid South Africa, Pinochet's Chile or Brezhnev's Soviet Union called into being protests, boycotts, demonstrations and an engagement from the intellectual classes, as well as from trade unions and churches, that rattled the cages of those shop-soiled tyrannies.

Yet every 20th-century evil carried out in the name of ideology or state is taking place daily in China. The abuses happen on a scale that often surpasses the crimes against human rights which mobilised the Pinters and Pilgers against rightist regimes, or the Rees-Moggs and Paul Johnsons against European communism.

But, on China, there is not a cheep. Wei Jingsheng, who has been in and out of prison since he first called for the "fifth freedom" of democracy in the late 1970s, has the moral stature and style of a Mandela or a Sakharov. Yet he is unknown in Britain. There is an ethical vacuum in our consideration of China. The usual excuse is that there is too much money to be made; the real reason is that at the end of the 20th century we suffer from the malady of human rights fatigue. Western liberals, having seen off fascism and communism, have become complacent.

All honour then to Index on Censorship, this year celebrating 25 years of reporting on threats to free expression, for a readable collection of articles on the lack of freedom in China and Hong Kong. In addition to withering analyses by the admirable John Gittings and Jonathan Mirsky, the pieces by Chinese writers, journalists and activists bury the lie that the Chinese are not interested in the core freedoms that define democracy.

Sadly, the handing back of Hong Kong in July will mark the end of the island's role as an independent source of information on China and, more broadly, on Asia. The handling of the transfer has been one of the most shaming chapters in the long march of Conservative rule since 1979. Margaret Thatcher bungled her talks with Deng Xiaoping; thereafter, Whitehall treated Hong Kong as a profit centre until John Major was presented with the problem of what to do with the defeated MP Chris Patten five years ago.

Patten is a humane, cultured one-nation Tory. Brought up in the security of suburban Ealing in the 1950s, he left Oxford well before the intellectual revolts that turned some to the left, but many more into the angry anti- socialists who swept Mrs Thatcher to glory. The party that Patten joined - of Heath, McLeod, Butler and Boyle - was turned into a home fit for David Evans and John Redwood. By then, Patten had made the Faustian pact of all ambitious politicians. At the start of the 1990s, this fastidious, witty man was reduced to grunting about Porkies and pretending he had something in common with Brian Mawhinney.

Hong Kong needed political leadership to prepare its people for rule by Beijing. But Patten was not the right person and Major, with his unerring lack of judgement, has sacrificed his friend's career in the belief he was doing him a favour.

The problem was not that Patten set out to antagonise the Chinese - he didn't - but that he was not allowed to do anything for the people of Hong Kong save give them their first and last essay in voting for an assembly. This was a symbolic two-fingered democratic salute up the nasal cavity of Deng's dictatorship, but as relevant to real politics as the poll tax.

Of incomparably greater use would have been the creation of the building blocks of civil society - by encouraging press freedom or workers' organisation, and by enshrining human rights in law. But Patten's masters in London were not interested in the politics of freedom. What was denied by Major in Britain could not be offered by Patten in Hong Kong.

Tim Heald's artlessly written account of his visits to Hong Kong as a guest of his old Balliol friend, Chris Patten, is a much better book than its rambling start suggests. In explaining what makes Patten tick, the more official biographies will not do a better job. Heald has written not just an elegy in the last graveyard of British colonialism, but an anthem of farewell to his and Patten's England - a place of minor public schools, Oxbridge, Denis Compton and mess dinners.

Patten, observes Heald, never bothered to get to grips with the Chinese. Instead, the last Governor spent his spare hours in Hong Kong learning French. It is not Britain that says goodbye to Hong Kong on 30 June. It is China and Asia that say adieu to England. Britain's future lies in making a success of Europe, not quick bucks in Asia.

Patten understands this. Can he persuade his party, or has the Tory generation that he, Heald and John Major represent outlived its purpose, at home and abroad?

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game