Sir David, the Chief Useful Idiot to China

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The Independent Online
ON FRIDAY Sir David Akers-Jones was received at the Great Hall of the People in Peking, where he was awarded a special certificate covered in brocade (that hideously garish Chinese brocade, no doubt) proving that he was now an adviser to the Chinese government. There were many other future advisers from Hong Kong, but the applause for Sir David, the former acting governor, was particularly emphatic, and both the Prime Minister, Li Peng, and the Communist Party leader, Jiang Zemin, made a point of shaking hands with him, so that by the time Sir David sat down he was literally pink with pleasure.

Funny the effect China has on people's judgement, isn't it? I knew some Germans who were in the habit of standing outside Cologne station in all kinds of weather, lined up in military ranks, reciting and repeating the latest Peking slogans and swearing eternal fealty to Mao Tse- tung. When I say I knew them, what I mean is I walked past them every day thinking, Christ, what a bunch of crackpots; but imagine the excitement there would have been if one had been able to go up to them and say: 'Hey boys, your loyalty has been noticed. You're expected at the Great Hall of the People next week. The Leader of the Party wants to shake you by the hand]'

It's something to do with the obsessive need for a parent. I knew a French photographer who confessed that he considered Mao to be his father, and Stalin his grandfather. (Kim Il Sung, as far as I recall, ranked as Dear Uncle.) But this photographer was quite definitely a crackpot.

Whereas Sir David Akers-Jones can't possibly be a crackpot. He is the former head of the Civil Service in Hong Kong as well as the former acting governor of that much-suffering colony. That's why he was considered such a catch by Peking when he began to parrot their line. But if Sir David is not a crackpot, he is at least an example of someone behaving very badly indeed, a case for the connoisseur of bad behaviour.

In the days of the Colonial Office, the rules governing the behaviour of the Akers-Joneses were absolutely clear. You retired to some country other than your chief posting. It was inconceivable that someone who had spent 30 years in Hong Kong should retire there. Furthermore, it was out of the question to retire and take a job or jobs in the colony where you had served. Finally, it was inconceivable to a nuclear degree that a member of the Colonial Service should retire to his old posting, take jobs there and proceed to criticise the current administration.

In 1968 the Colonial Office, which had become the Commonwealth Relations Office, was incorporated into the Foreign Office, which had its own rather different rules. So there are precedents for a retired civil servant staying on in his old posting. But the behaviour of Sir David is quite unprecedented, even before you reach the question whether he is on the right or wrong side of the argument over the extension of democracy in Hong Kong (he's against it).

For five months after the death in 1986 of Sir Edward Youde, Sir David was acting governor of Hong Kong. It was the culmination of a career in which, according to authoritative sources, he had risen rather beyond his abilities. Not that these were negligible. He had learnt Chinese and spent a long time in the New Territories - rather too long, they say, although the idea that he is a case of the dangers of 'going native' is apparently wide of the mark. What he did become familiar with was the strong vein of anti-British sentiment, and what he also acquired over the years was, according to a colleague, a 'religious fixation with Mother China'. (It's that need for a parent again.)

Whether because of that fixation, or for some other reason, he decided to stay on in Hong Kong after 1987. Soon it became known that he would not refuse a job, and the Government, rather than have him test the value of his cv on the open market, made him chairman of the Housing Authority, from which position he resigned last month. His resignation had been sought by liberals on two counts: he had acquired other interests which allegedly conflicted with those of his office, and he had become a public critic of Chris Patten, the Governor. He felt that he had been hounded from office, but he also felt - as he told the Daily Telegraph last week - that he had massive support: 'nothing but 'thumbs up' signs publicly and privately from people all over Hong Kong. I believe it has brought some comfort to people that a 'foreign devil' they have known for over 30 years has been appointed (to the list of advisers to China).'

Actually, after writing this, he did receive some signals other than the thumbs up. At the airport, as he departed for Peking last Thursday, he was treated to a pro-democracy demonstration of ironic kowtowing, and he was clearly upset by it. Perhaps we can sum up his position as being both hounded from office and universally loved and admired. Just as, on receipt of his certificate in the Great Hideous Hall of the People, Sir David denied being unpatriotic with the words: 'My loyalty is to Hong Kong and the people of Hong Kong. Of course I am British and have not lost my patriotism for Britain.' His is a mind that can reconcile apparent contradictions - a valuable mind, forsooth.

For if Hong Kong is Chinese, as the Chinese have always said, then his loyalty is to China, and since, as it happens, there is a violent difference of opinion currently between China and Britain, the patriotic option is something that - as far as I can see - he is going to have to forgo for the moment. He has refused to say whether he will sit, if asked, on the committee to be formed later this year, the one the Chinese say may turn into a shadow government of Hong Kong.

'My concern,' says Sir David, 'is for the people of Hong Kong and that is why I have agreed to become an adviser to China.' Well, what he has really become is Chief Useful Idiot to China, since the notion of them taking his advice on something that went against the grain is quite beyond credence.

Take the question on which the battle has been fought - the extension of democracy. This was always one of the foundations of the Chinese Communist attitude to Hong Kong. In 1955 Chou En-lai laid out the conditions under which the British might govern the colony for the moment, and these included not steering the territory towards democracy or self-government. This was part of the message he gave to the then Governor, Sir Alexander Grantham, and it has been consistently adhered to. Capitalism might develop as it liked - they had no objection - but democracy . . . no.

This suited all kinds of people with all kinds of motives, up to the signing of the Joint Declaration at the end of 1984. The worries began in earnest in 1989, after Tiananmen, and that was no doubt somewhat late. But the Chinese position never substantially changed and is not susceptible to change. Sir David Akers-Jones has merely allied himself with the force majeure in an extraordinary, vainglorious display. Meanwhile his former colleagues, I am told, are hanging their heads in shame.

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