British Empire Books

The Last Governor

AuthorJonathon Dimbleby
First Published1997
First PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
This Edition1998
This PublisherWarner

"I think that some of the Chinese suspect that,
having come to democracy rather late in Hong Kong,
we're trying to construct some democratic time bomb
to blow their system to smithereens"

This book is about as contemporary as imperial books are ever likely to be. With the events having taken place just a few short years ago, the people, places and events are all easily recognisable to anyone who followed the events in the international media. The central character of course is the Last Governor himself, Chris Patten. The book follows his five year term as he tried to battle with the Chinese to create a semblance of democracy to uphold and maintain the economic system that had made Hong Kong such a financial success.

The author of the book is a famous British correspondent, Jonathon Dimbleby. In fact, Dimbleby is primarily a television journalist and the concept of Last Governor was conceived more with a view for the silver screen rather than as a literary endeavour. Indeed, time and again you can tell that certain aspects of the book that were dwelt on in detail must have been because the BBC had good shots of the activities than for any literary merit or necessity. One example is the chapter dedicated to a vote on extending the franchise. Although this was undeniably an important part of his governorship, it was odd that this vote came after the Chinese had declared that there would be no democratic through-train and that the book hardly mentions this much more momentous decision. Presumably, this is because they didn't have pictorial access to the Chinese decision making processes. This kind of criticism is probably inevitable given the nature of diplomacy, Asian politics, and the ever-secretive Chinese oligarchy; the reader should be aware of these limitations.

In sharp contrast to this criticism, the book does an excellent job at portraying the institutional infighting in the British and Hong Kong establishments. On the British side you had a triumvirate of the Governor's house, the British Embassy in Beijing, and the Foreign Office in London. The book concentrates on how the Governor's house was left to battle these two other institutions as much as the Chinese negotiators themselves. The problem was that the Foreign Office and British Embassy in China took a much longer and economic term view with a view to Britain's relations returning to normal after the return of Hong Kong. In their view, Chris Patten's insistence on democratic reforms were not only a nuisance but a serious long term threat to Britain's economic and political role in the area. Chris Patten on the other hand took the view that he had to advance Hong Kong's interests above and beyond even those of Britain's. He knew that the uniqueness of Hong Kong was the primary reasons for its economic success and he wanted to arm the Hong Kong people with the democratic means of guarding this most valuable of properties. Fortunately for Chris Patten, he could call upon the good will and favours of the British Prime-Minister and the Foreign Secretaries. He needed these powerful allies in fighting the institutional inertia of the Foreign Office and diplomatic corps. It is in this kind of pitched battle that the book excels.

The local rivalries are equally well covered. Again, you have the Governor's house, but this time they are pitched against the business community, the democrats, the media and most stubbornly of all, the Chinese. The book explains how the business community were more than willing to forego democracy in order to placate and please their soon to be political overlords. They seemed to equate democracy with not just rights, but with expensive rights that would eat in to their profit margins and stock valuations. In a return to Victorian cut-throat mercantalism these 'entrepreneurs' wanted to make sure that their workers had as few rights as possible and also to dominate the political culture to make it more difficult for upcoming rivals to take their place at the head of the economic table. In a strange contradiction, only one chairman of what was originally an opium trading company was prepared to back Chris Patten's call to extend democracy. Simon Murray from Hutchison Whampoa was almost alone in the business community in recognising the fundamentals required for Hong Kong's future prosperity, but in the post 1997 period and with Hong Kong's economic downturn his lone voice seems to have been the only accurate one. All the Chinese sychophants have been fully exposed to the Capitalistic winds that they had feigned to promote.

Jonathon Dimbleby presents a rather short and compressed history of the Hong Kong colony. The further back in its history he goes, the scantier it gets. The general idea that he portrays is the aloofness of the European community from the wider Chinese immigrant society. The post war history is where he starts to give more detail, as he explains the reasons and excuses given by successive Governors on why they could not give more democracy to the local populace. This is a rather shameful series of collusions with the business community and lack of confidence in dealing with the Chinese. The book forwards the entirely reasonable supposition that Tianneman Square changed the debate forever and that Chris Patten had little option but to advance democracy. If not, he would have had just as vehement battles with the democrats as he had with the Chinese. Jonathon Dimbleby is clearly sympathetic with his subject matter and portrays this last term as the final chance Britain had of redeeming its role in the region's history books. Battling not just for democratic accountability or for the rule of law, but for a possible means of escape for the various communities living in the colony should things have turned out for the worst under the Chinese: Residency rights, visas and passports were all items that had to be wrenched from an, at times, unwilling British government. The author portrays these successes but also demonstrates the failures and setbacks along the route. For example, the failure to secure passports for those Hong Kong citizens who had joined the armed forces to fight for Queen and colony.

Of course, Chris Patten was ultimately unsuccessful in his bid to increase democracy in Hong Kong. The Chinese jettisoned the through-train of democracy and created their own sychophantic ruling administration. The governor had thought that the Chinese could not have been so stupid as to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs - but they could not take the risk that Hong Kong would change China more than China change Hong Kong. Jonathon Dimbleby thinks that the Governor was right to do battle despite the conclusion that was finally reached and that the British could withdraw with a modicum of good will and respect. Britain's conversion to democratic rights was better late than never.

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by Stephen Luscombe