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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Dave Mackay lifts the FA Cup in 1967 having skippered Spurs to victory
football
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
Arts and Entertainment
As depicted in Disney's Robin Hood, King John was cowardly, cruel, avaricious and incompetent
film
Life and Style
Travis Kalanick, the co-founder of Uber, is now worth $5.3bn
tech
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

Recruitment Genius: Lift and Elevator Service Manager - Birmingham

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Circles South East Youth Service: Youth Services Volunteer

this is an unpaid voluntary position: Circles South East Youth Service: LOOKIN...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £30,000+

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading privately owned sp...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is require...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn