Patten ducks mandarin attacks; Tuesday Book

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The Independent Culture
IF EVER a book was in the eye of the storm, then East and West is it. As the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten spent five years locking horns not just with the Chinese government, but also with a group of Whitehall mandarins and their parliamentary sympathisers, who considered his espousal of democratic rights for the colony ill-judged. Then came an unholy and much-publicised row when Patten delivered his manuscript to its commissioning publishers, HarperCollins. The proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, decided to reject what Patten had written, reputedly without having read a word of it.

The immediate upshot was that, while the book went to Macmillan for a yet bigger advance, Murdoch lost the services of his gifted publishing director, Stuart Proffitt. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the situation has started to deteriorate faster than anyone dared fear. Partly this is due to the general meltdown in Asian markets; but partly the new authorities have already shown an interventionist hand. Speculation by governmental investors and cronyism have both appeared as new features in the Hong Kong cauldron.

Given the noise that preceded it, Patten's book is almost bound to disappoint. Whatever else it may be, it certainly is not a blow-by-blow account of the wrangles that plagued his governorship, though he hints darkly that the truth, were it known, would be found unbelievable. He has something to say about his term of office, but the reader will search in vain for any mention of, say, Sir Percy Cradock, chief among that Whitehall clique who, as Patten sees it, advocated a policy of self-abasement towards Beijing.

Rather Patten, as elder statesman-in-waiting, elects for circumspection. Only Murdoch comes in for a killing punch. Patten reminds us that the Australian once boasted that his sort of broadcasting represents an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes, but subsequently "reacted unambiguously to objections from Peking [sic] by booting the BBC from his satellite channels". Touche. Was this included in the manuscript originally delivered to HarperCollins?

Mainly, East and West is an extended exposition of Patten's own political philosophy within the context of his Hong Kong experience, decked out with snatches of autobiography and repeated censure of the Beijing regime. In essence, Patten is a Butlerite with a fierce faith in free trade and liberal economics as the universal panacea for all the world's ills, including human-rights abuses.

Heading his list of priorities is the rule of law: the impartial guarantor of both economic and civic health. His key questions are whether such a package can be exported Asia-wide, and how disruptive to the emerging global order any sectional (ie Chinese) rejection of it may be.

By insisting on the universal applicability of his recipe, Patten begs both answers. It is in its detail, however, that some of his argument falters. In his most provocative chapter, "Asian Values", he adroitly hobbles a silly stalking horse.

"Asian Values" is shorthand for the devil-may-care attitude that has supposedly attended the fast-track expansion of Far Eastern economies. But while Patten demonstrates that there is nothing uniquely or even especially Asian about the rapacity in question, he allows this conclusion to blind him to real cultural differences between East and West.

As his book fans out to take in all Asia, though curiously not Japan in any meaningful degree, he is at his weakest when considering Confucianism. Confucius, he suggests, is also a bit of a myth. Quoting selectively from the Analects, he attempts to show that Confucius too was a liberal. But what Confucius in fact said (a matter of unending debate) is very nearly irrelevant. What matters is Confucianism as an actual historic paradigm that explains, among other marvels, the predilection for command economies among its followers.

Patten's discussion avoids mention of command economies as such. Nor does it properly identify another main prop of Asian economic growth: cheap labour. The two surges in Hong Kong's economy both depended on it, as well as on massive capital injections, particularly from Japan and the US. The colony's own cheap labour fuelled the boom in the 1950s, and Guangdong province's that of the 1980s. So this is an unaccountable oversight.

Such shortcomings place Patten's book somewhat in the common ruck of Asia surveys, even though most readers will warm to its author as his account progresses. His greatest error, however, is the most pervasive. Contrary to liberal ideology, human rights are conventions, and as such have to be sold wherever they do not already exist. Patten's incessant war against Beijing, however principled, may impede their sale where to him they matter most.

Conversely, East and West will certainly be taken most seriously in the occident. A large consignment is already on its way to Australia. Whether it will also appear in Hong Kong is the immediate test to come. If the new authorities are very lucky, Murdoch will buy up all the bookshops there and spare their blushes.

Justin Wintle