Chris Patten served as governor of Hong Kong from 1992 until June 30, 1997, when the British colony was returned to China. His forthcoming book, "East and West" (Macmillan), records his experiences in Hong Kong and his thoughts on China and the rest of Asia. Mr. Patten visited Boston April 30 to address Mellon Private Assets Management and spoke with the Monitor's deputy international news editor, Gregory M. Lamb. Interview excerpts follow:
What is your coming book about?
I've written about whether there was an [Asian] economic miracle - to which the answer is "no, there wasn't," but what happened in Asia is pretty spectacular and started to go wrong when some of the Asians started to believe their own propaganda. I've written about Asian values, which is a specious justification for authoritarianism, and about the relationship between freedom and prosperity,... business and politics, and about dealing with China ... and I finish up with the argument about whether the future lies with the Pacific Rim.
What's your conclusion?
That it doesn't lie with a continent or with a group of countries. It lies with a couple of powerful ideas. And they're the same ideas which triumphed at the beginning of this century, namely political liberty and economic freedom.
We're 10 months into Chinese control of Hong Kong. How has it compared with what you thought might happen?
For me, the positive points have been first of all that the system has continued to work very well: the civil service, the courts, the police, and so on. Secondly, Hong Kong's economic fundamentals have helped to see it through all these difficulties, not least Hong Kong's huge [financial] reserves. Thirdly, I've been particularly interested in the extent to which people have been prepared to stand up for themselves and speak out when they think aspects of their way of life are threatened....
The sadness is, of course, that Hong Kong has become the only example of decolonization accompanied by less democracy rather than more. Nevertheless, the democrats are still part of the action. They'll do as well as the new [Chinese] electoral arrangements allow.
How does Hong Kong's ability to leaven China compare with China's ability to change Hong Kong?
People have often seen two ideas headed in different directions. Except I'm not sure what the Chinese idea is now. There's plainly no ethical case for whatever it is that the Communist Party represents in China. I suppose that the best description you could use is "Leninist capitalism." That I regard as highly improbable - that you can indefinitely open up an economy while keeping an iron grip on the politics.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, is in Asian terms a slice of the future: It's an open economy. It's a sophisticated, free society. It's imbued with liberal values, and I think it's inevitably going to play a significant role in shaping the sort of China that emerges over the next generation.
The Clinton administration and Congress struggle with how to prod China on human rights. What's your view?
People have suggested that there are only two ways of dealing with China: containment or engagement.... Some [US] administrations have ping-ponged between the two.... Containment looks implausible and engagement often looks flaccid.
I think there's a middle way which involves separating trade from political issues, which involves not being obsessed with China, which involves treating China like any other country. I think American policy has been flawed through the years to the extent it's been seen through the prism of the annual debate about MFN [most-favored-nation trade status]. The Chinese don't believe [the US] would actually cancel MFN and neither [does the US]. ...
I'd let China happen. If China wants to join the World Trade Organization, terrific! It's for China to put forward arrangements.... People say, 'Ah, yes, trade with China may be small today, but think of the potential!' That's what they've been saying since Marco Polo.
You switched publishers after Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins refused to publish your book, which is critical of China. Some said he was protecting his business interests in China. Is there a larger message here about freedom of the press?
I find it difficult to know how media barons can take the maximum advantage of the freedom of speech that they are guaranteed in liberal society while endorsing suppression as well.... I don't understand how people can operate with that corporate double standard.
Why have you decided to head a commission on policing in Northern Ireland?
I come from Irish stock on my father's side. I'm an Englishman and a Catholic and a Tory. This is a demonstration that you can have loyalties to different things and feel them intensely at the same time....We've made a shabby mess of sharing those islands. And in my judgment we didn't give the task of trying to resolve the conflict the priority it deserved.
So when [Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary] Mo Mowlam asked me...I don't think I had any choice but to put the next year of my life where my mouth has been for the last 15 years.
Your name has come up as a candidate for mayor of London.
I'm not prepared to paint myself into corners.... I'm not going to commit myself to any yeses or nos to political jobs.