TCS Daily

From Hong Kong to Brussels

By Jerome E. Carter - February 28, 2002 12:00 AM

Almost no one has noticed, but the chap who is leading the barrage of petty European criticism of the United States' unilateral military action against terrorist outfits and the states that sponsor them is none other than Christopher Patten.

Yes, that Chris Patten.

The same Chris Patten who made his name as Britain's last colonial governor of Hong Kong, bravely standing up to the Communist Chinese dictators, promoting freedom, and pressing for democratic reforms. Strangely, though, after standing tall against the Butchers of Beijing, Patten has reduced himself to little more than an ankle biter on the world stage.

Chris Patten established himself as a hero in the West between 1992 and 1997, when Great Britain finally handed control of Hong Kong to Beijing according to the terms of 1984's Sino-British Joint Declaration. Patten was installed as governor after losing his reelection bid to the House of Commons. His charge was to oversee the peaceful transfer of power to the Chinese, which he did, but not without teaching the Communists an endless series of lessons in political courage.

From nearly the moment Patten arrived in Hong Kong, he infuriated and frustrated the mainland's aging despots by bluntly praising the virtues of democracy and pushing last-minute reforms cementing the civil liberties of Hong Kong residents. "There has been no British official like Chris Patten, who is so perfidious," one Communist-controlled newspaper bitterly remarked shortly after his arrival.

Patten's term was a bold and courageous departure from Britain's previous administrations of Hong Kong, which had been characterized by a series of officious lickspittle Brits who routinely groveled before the ruthless ChiComs.

His refusal to kowtow to the mainland Chinese made for plenty of acrimony, but it was delicious for anyone who despaired of the Communists' blatant disregard for civil rights and basic freedoms.

No Patten speech went uncriticized by Beijing. And for five years Hong Kong was treated to a long-running show of Patten making a rousing speech or giving some unapologetic quote to a newspaper, followed by withering denunciations emanating from the official propagandists across the China Sea. In 1992, for instance, he was blasted as "unreasonable, abominable, and childish," a typical response. In 1995, a Chinese official likened one of Patten's policies to a "Formula One car which is going to crash and kill all
six million people in Hong Kong."

Not surprisingly, Patten's brash declarations about securing the rights of Hong Kongers in the post-1997 world upset the old China hands in the civil service back home almost as much as they upset those with the blood of Tiananmen Square still wet on their hands. Business interests weren't keen on Patten's democratic absolutism, either, since it threatened to cloud the post-1997 business climate. And then there were China critics in Hong Kong, like Martin Lee, who protested that Patten was too accommodating
to the Red Chinese.

The 1990s had to have been a very lonely time for Patten. Yet he never wavered in his dedication to democracy and to espousing those principles which drew the most marked contrast between the Hong Kong and mainland China - namely representative government and the rule of law.

But a different Chris Patten can be found in the news these days. With Western culture and Western freedoms under attack by a suicidal band of anti-democratic nihilists, Patten has emerged as the leading spokesman for the not-very-courageous principles of moderation, conciliation, and giving little or no offense.

Patten has a new position as the European Union's commissioner for external relations, effectively greater Europe's secretary of state. And from this perch Patten has led the European carping about Washington's muscular, worldwide campaign to snuff out terrorist networks like those that destroyed the World Trade Center and murdered Daniel Pearl.

While those in Washington's councils worry about bin Ladenites acquiring dangerous nuclear materials and other weapons of mass destruction, Patten and his compatriots worry about ... Washington.

He has condemned America's "absolutist positions and simplistic positions," and fears America "going into unilateralist overdrive." Patten has belittled President Bush's use of the phrase "axis of evil" to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as unhelpful.

The Bush-Rumsfeld-Rice position is, on the whole, wrongheaded, failing to address "the root causes of terrorism and violence."

"When you're addressing that agenda," he told one interviewer, "smart bombs have their place but smart development assistance seems to me even more significant."

All of which makes Chris Patten sound like Jimmy Carter, not like the man who never shied from confronting the heirs to Mao Tse Tung. He is still confrontational, but now it is a different sort of confrontation - in the defense of the sorts of principles he once rejected out of hand.

Chris Patten is the ambassador for the soft and squeamish virtues - "dialog" and "engagement" and "consensus" - at a time when the West needs to hear the hard truths he once espoused. It certainly is a long strange trip from Hong Kong to Brussels. One wonders, when Chris Patten turned in the keys to the city of Hong Kong in 1997, did he also turn in his common sense?

Jerome Carter is a writer living in Washington and can be reached at


TCS Daily Archives