Peking embassy siege veterans recall the Red Guards' summer of hate

While Chris Patten recovers in France from five years of Chinese vituperation, a group of people gathering at the Foreign Office later this week would say the former Governor of Hong Kong had it easy. It is one thing to be called a "tango dancer" and "Triple Violator" by the New China News Agency; another altogether to be kicked and beaten by a mob of Red Guards screaming "Kill! Kill!"

Thirty years ago this week Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution was at its height. All over China "counter-revolutionary elements" were being "struggled" - in other words, anyone holding any authority, appearing to have middle-class tendencies or simply not showing enough fervour was liable to be publicly humiliated, beaten or killed out of hand. Later research has shown that in some cases Red Guards ate the bodies of their victims.

In 1967 the frenzy began to be directed against foreigners. The Indonesian embassy in Peking had been sacked and burned, the Mongolian ambassador's car set on fire and the Soviet embassy invaded. Britain became the target when the authorities in Hong Kong, determined to stop the mass demonstrations there, closed Communist newspapers and charged some of their journalists with inciting and participating in violence. An ultimatum to the British embassy in Peking was rejected, and its staff prepared for trouble.

What followed will be remembered by most of the 51 people assembling in the opulent Locarno Room of the Foreign Office for a commemorative dinner on Wednesday. Sir Ray Whitney, Conservative MP for Wycombe, was among the 23 diplomats and support staff in the British embassy on the night of 22 August 1967. "We're not having a Chinese banquet, just noisettes of lamb," he said. "Only a few firms are cleared to cater at the Foreign Office, and the one we chose didn't have anything so exotic on its sample menus."

Some veterans of the Peking siege cannot make it. Sir Len Appleyard is the present ambassador in Peking, Sir John Weston, our man at the UN, is chairing the Security Council this month, and Sir Percy Cradock, Mr Patten's arch-critic, is away. The guest list includes family members in Peking at the time, as well as foreign diplomats who helped the British.

The Red Guards' attacks had driven the foreign community together 30 years ago - despite Cold War hostility, East European diplomats tried to warn the British that a mob was on the way, but the phone lines had been cut. So had radio links to London; as chanting Red Guards set fire to the building and the people inside retreated to the embassy's secure area, the Foreign Office had no way of knowing what was going on.

Finally the 18 British men and five women, led by the senior diplomat, Donald Hopson, had to come out. One described to Anthony Grey, a Reuters journalist himself held hostage in Peking, what happened next. "I have a mental image of the Minister lurching off to one side with blood streaming down his face from a blow... Hands seized us from all sides, punches rained down on us from all directions."

Some of the women were interfered with and had most of their clothing ripped off. Red Guard girls wrenched the testicles of the men as they were frog-marched around. After nearly an hour, People's Liberation Army soldiers lounging at the gate were persuaded to intervene, and all the group got to safety.

No doubt it was Sir Percy's experiences that night which once led him to describe the Chinese regime as "a bunch of thugs", but several veterans of the incident denied hotly that it had continued to affect British policy towards China up to the present day. Some critics claim that the destruction of the embassy - it was rebuilt by the Chinese in 1972 - convinced a whole generation of Foreign Office sinologists that China would go to any lengths to get its way, with damaging effects on negotiations over Hong Kong. This phobia, they say, accounts for the sinologists' failure to see eye to eye with Mr Patten.

"I challenge that," said Sir Ray. "Most office-holders in China today suffered during the Cultural Revolution." "For those of us who went through those events," said Sir David, "[it] was a most vivid reaffirmation of the sheer awfulness of the regime... in the sense of what it could do and what it would allow to happen. What we witnessed then in Peking, including the corpses on the street, was simply extremely distasteful. But I don't think that any of that bears really on what happened subsequently in terms of the handing back of Hong Kong."

No speeches are planned on Wednesday, and no hint of present-day controversy is expected to pollute the tide of reminiscence. But it is a safe bet that if toasts are drunk, there is unlikely to be one to Chris Patten.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss