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?