Chris Patten may have made a mess of things at the BBC but in Hong Kong, where he was the last British governor, he is still remembered fondly. “Fatty Pang” to the mainland authorities, he was perhaps the first colonial boss in Hong Kong to stand up to Beijing. Although London had done little to foster democracy in its 145 years of rule, he realised that if Britain were to leave any trace of its liberal political culture before the communists took over, it was now or never.
Seventeen years on, there are still traces of that legacy. Among its judges the Court of Final Appeal has two Chings and a Chan but also a Mason, a Collins, a Bokhary, a Neuberger, even a John Mortimer; and its opinions are sought across the world. The South China Morning Post is still an excellent newspaper. The democracy movement that first took hold in the colony during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and which Patten’s reforms helped to foster, is still a force to be reckoned with.
But many fear that the liberties which Patten helped enshrine are eroding fast. And they have ample reason to worry. Deng Xiaoping sugared the take-over pill by promising that Hong Kong would be allowed to carry on as before. After the negotiations with Mrs Thatcher he said, “We have proposed to solve the Hong Kong problem by allowing two systems to exist in one country.” But Thatcher herself was sceptical from the start. In an interview in 2007 she said, “One country, two systems was developed some years earlier as an approach to the issue of Taiwan. It doesn’t look any more appropriate in that context now than it did then.” And now it seems her fears are justified.
The erosion is taking place slyly, slowly, by inches, taking care not to frighten the horses or stick spanners in the wheels of trade. But it is happening nonetheless. This week a mainland court sentenced a Hong Kong publisher to 10 years’ jail for the apparently rather minor crime of not paying import duty on industrial paint which he had taken from Hong Kong to China in October. But the real offence of Yiu Man-tin was that he was planning to publish a book entitled “China’s Godfather Xi Jinping”. Yiu’s son Edmond Yiu Yung-chin, who in January wrote an open letter to Xi Jinping urging him to stop what he called the ‘political persecution’ of his father and honour Hong Kong’s press freedom, told the South China Morning Post that he believed his father had been set up.
This incident follows the Triad-like street attack in February on Kevin Lau, the ousted editor of a Ming Pao, a Hong Kong daily, which under his leadership had campaigned for greater democracy in Hong Kong and had exposed a number of political scandals. While Mr Lau was recovering in hospital, thousands of his supporters gathered to rally in his support.
But the fight is an unequal one. Mr Lau had already been replaced as Ming Pao’s editor by a Singapore-based Malaysian who had gained the approval of the Beijing authorities when he vocally supported a mainland-inspired proposal for compulsory “national education” classes in the ex-colony’s schools while editing another paper. The biggest demonstrations in Hong Kong since Tiananmen Square forced the authorities to can that idea, which was seen as a cunning mainland plot to kill subversive tendencies at source.
On the subject of Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong has a new tourist attraction: the world’s first and only museum commemorating the pro-democracy protests that took over that huge square in Beijing exactly 25 years ago. The June 4 Memorial Museum opened its doors last week, just in time for the big anniversary. But it’s not easy to find: on the fifth floor of a commercial building in the Tsim Sha Sui area of southern Kowloon, opposite Hong Kong island, there is no sign indicating its presence on the outside of the building; one needs to look closely at the floor directory next to the lift to spot it. Sandwiched between bars and Korean restaurants it is easily missed, but that may be part of its survival strategy: hiding in full sight. But its low profile has not kept people away: two recent visitors, who wrote it up for Index on Censorship, reported queues winding out of the front door as children and adults peered curiously at the books, pamphlets, photos and videos recording an uprising which the communist authorities stigmatise as a counter-revolutionary revolt, and about which most Chinese youth know little or nothing.
Twenty-five years ago, flying from Hong Kong to Shanghai was like going back half a century in time. Hong Kong was much as we know it today, its forest of skyscrapers teetering over the island’s craggy contours. Shanghai, though the People’s Republic’s coolest city, was quaint by comparison, almost sleepy.
Today, thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the two cities clearly belong to the same civilisation again. And the people of Hong Kong are courageously clinging to the liberties which the Deng-Thatcher Agreement rather too suavely assured them, and which Beijing is doing its cunning best to dismantle. It is nice to report that the disrespectful biography of Xi Jinping that Mr Yiu was hoping to publish has come out from a different house: Open Books. Needless to say, it’s not on sale in the mainland.