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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all