Calls for independence will derail Hong Kong’s push for democracy, says Chris Patten

The former governor of Hong Kong on why the call for independence is unreasonable and why he has little sympathy for it


Chris Patten says one of India’s greatest strengths is also its soft power, which includes its fine literature and Bollywood—both of which exert a huge, positive influence. Photo: Reuters
Chris Patten says one of India’s greatest strengths is also its soft power, which includes its fine literature and Bollywood—both of which exert a huge, positive influence. Photo: Reuters

Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, once observed that “no one who has spent any time in this city forgets it. It is one of the great exciting maritime cities: beautiful, cluttered, rumbustious. It brings together much of the best of China and of the west”.

“It used to be said that no one ever made any money out of betting against Hong Kong. That remains true today, and it will still be the case in 2017,” Patten wrote in an article in The Guardian 10 years after Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

The optimistic ex-governor also stated then that “it was beyond doubt that Hong Kong will have a mature democracy sooner rather than later”. He did shrewdly hedge that statement with what seems to have become a prophetic statement today.

“Beijing will have to realize in a moderate community the only thing likely to stoke up immoderation is the denial of democratic aspirations,” he noted.

Close to two decades after Britain’s handover to China, Beijing is having to deal with an immoderate youthful population in Hong Kong that blames it for choking its democratic aspirations.

The youth are resentful about not having a say in picking their political leader or having a genuine political discussion about their future with the Chinese Communist Party.

The present government is getting blamed for soaring property prices, falling wages and increasing cronyism.

When the Chinese government rejected the demands for open elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executive, it energized protesters in 2014.

The Occupy-style umbrella movement that followed was staged for 79 days by students and ended up with police firing tear gas on peaceful protesters.

This summer also saw Hong Kong’s first ever pro-independence movement rally. And in October this year, there was further dissent when, during a swearing-in ceremony, two pro-independence Hong Kong legislators modified their oaths to pledge allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” and unfurled a banner declaring, “Hong Kong is not China”.

Hong Kong’s high court quickly banned the two legislators from taking their seats.

Beijing also responded by threatening new national security laws that outlaw treason.

Patten—now a member of the House of Lords and chancellor of the University of Oxford—has little sympathy for the young independence movement brewing in this city.

In fact, he is highly critical of it.

He thinks that calls for Hong Kong’s independence will derail the push for democracy, and the serious effort that has been put into it to date.

“Two years ago, I watched with huge admiration many brave young people who campaigned for democracy in Hong Kong. They established moral high ground about democracy and governance,” he said.

“It would be a tragedy if that high ground was lost now because of a few antics of the independence movement for Hong Kong,” Patten added.

Critiquing the two young Hong Kong legislators, the ex-governor pointed out that taking an official oath in government office is serious business.

“I have taken oath when I came to Hong Kong and, later, as a member of Parliament and, recently, at the House of Lords. Taking oath isn’t something of a lark,” he said.

He asserted: “It is a mistake to confuse the argument for greater democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of press, independence of the judiciary with some headline-grabbing remarks about independence. It is dishonest, dishonourable and reckless.”

According to The Guardian, “full-blown secession from the mainland that the independence movement of Hong Kong seeks is a pipe dream. China’s communist leaders have shown zero tolerance for independence movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, home to minorities that resent Beijing’s rule.”

Patten agrees.

He also thinks the call for independence in Hong Kong is unreasonable. Citing the Sino-British joint declaration regarding the handover, he points to a clause that clearly states “upholding the territorial integrity and national unity of China”.

By implication, the independence movement, in his view, has no legal ground and will be counter-productive.

“Inevitably, there has been a backlash which reflects sentiments in the mainland, and which go well beyond the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.

Patten is quick to point out that there is no greater champion of democracy in Hong Kong than him, but is against the antics of a few asking for independence.

“Independence is something which is not going to happen, and the movement for it dilutes support for greater democracy and makes a mockery of the serious political argument for it.”

Edited excerpts from and interview:

What do you see as India’s role and contribution to the state of the world today?

India is the most exciting country in the world today. I don’t mean that India is poised to become a superpower. Because it may not, given its complexity. By 2040, the largest population in the world will be Indian. This will come with great responsibility and challenges. But I am confident that the country will tackle it wisely.

India is an extraordinary story. It is not going to simply move on a straight line of the graph paper. But it will continue to move in the right trajectory.

India has today fully integrated into the world economy, and has some of the most effective MNCs (multinational companies) which follow international corporate governance guidelines. One of India’s greatest strengths is also its soft power, which includes its fine literature and Bollywood. Both of them exert a huge positive influence globally.

India is an extraordinary democracy which has held together an astonishingly diverse society, ethnicities, religions, languages in a way that simply would not have held up anywhere else. It would have blown apart. I hope that the present government will avoid the temptation we have seen in other countries to become more nationalist if the economic climate becomes a bit more difficult.

Your views on India-UK relations and India-China relations?

There is a lot more Indian investment today in the UK than UK investment in India. This sums it up in many ways. India is concerned about its relationship with China—but because of that—it would be a mistake for America and Europe to try to use India as a democratic pawn in the geostrategic argument and game with China. It would be a huge error. India’s development matters to the whole world.

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