What are we to make of Asia today, with its "miracle" economies in nose dives? And what is to be the fate of now-sputtering Hong Kong, once a humming engine for regional economic growth? In his new book, Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, writes that he does not want "to contribute to the temporarily discontinued library of books puffing Asia. Tiger virtues, tiger values, tiger miracles, tiger futures have been so recklessly celebrated that we find ourselves, boom or bust, told that all the tigers are skinned and stuffed. What has happened in Asia has been remarkable; once exaggerated, it is now belittled." In a spirited but thoughtful way, Patten provides "some middle ground in this important debate about Asian development."

In 1992 Patten, a committed and liberal Tory politician, was given the challenge of guiding Hong Kong through the remaining five tense years before it reverted to Chinese control. His mission was beset with controversy over how best to manage relations with Beijing. Since the 1997 reversion to China, however, the turmoil of the Patten years and the anxieties over whether "one country, two systems" could work for Hong Kong have become faint memories for the island's people, who suddenly find themselves beleaguered by circumstances not of China's making. Engulfed in the larger Asian economic crisis, they found their wealth evaporating because of falling real estate values, tumbling stock markets, and rising unemployment. Patten, by contrast, spent a much more pleasant year reflecting on his experiences and thinking about Western policies toward Asia in general. His book goes beyond Hong Kong, confronting the grand issue of how the West should deal with a China emerging pell-mell as a great power and, even more broadly, the questions of the likely future of Asia as a whole and of ensuring that East and West can become partners in world politics. Despite his denials that he has written a memoir, Patten's personal report of his Hong Kong experiences certainly fits the genre, but his above-the-fray philosophizing makes his book much more than that.


From the day Patten took up his duties at Government House, he endured constant sniping, often from those he calls OCHs (Old China Hands) and OFOCs (Old Friends of China). The OCHs, especially the Sinologues in the British Foreign Office, fretted that a politician without diplomatic experience could not appreciate the mysterious sensitivities of the Chinese and the convoluted practices and taboos essential for dealing successfully with them. The OFOCs, who ranged from Hong Kong tycoons to Johnny-come-latelies to the Asian scene, shamelessly strove to become Beijing's lackeys. Patten makes only a slight effort to mask his scorn for the pusillanimous crowd who counseled kowtowing to Beijing, but he vividly recounts the battles without undue animus and without naming names. Throughout, Patten holds fast to a straightforward, commonsense view. "We are lured into thinking that there is a special, and exact, way of dealing with China, which turns out on close inspection to be one part correct to four parts mumbo jumbo," he writes. "China should be treated just like we would treat anyone else, not on the basis of voodoo or the assumption that it requires its own rule book."

Patten arrived in Hong Kong with a moral compass: an abiding faith that human history is best advanced by pluralistic democracy and free markets. The second belief gave him no trouble, but the first plagued him throughout his tour. Patten felt that it was a disgrace that Britain's last colony should not be prepared, as all its other colonies had been, for an independent and democratic future. Since independence was not in the cards, Patten quickly got to work on advancing democracy, strengthening human rights, and boosting the rule of law.

The biggest clash came over his determination to expand electoral participation as far as possible. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong held that for elections to the Legislative Council only 20 legislators would be directly elected, while 30 legislators would be chosen from "functional constituencies" representing various occupations and 10 picked by an election committee. Patten set about to stretch the limits. First, he opposed Chinese pressure to introduce proportional representation for the direct elections, which would have hurt the popular democratic forces by giving some seats to pro-Beijing minority elements. More important, he changed the rules for the 1995 "functional" elections by expanding the number of occupations qualifying for representation and insisting that anyone in any way associated with a profession or occupation could vote. In the past, only directors and officers of companies, partners of law firms, and top professionals had voted. In the 1995 election, secretaries, clerks, and even drivers cast ballots along with their CEOs. Patten, clearly, implanted a craving for democracy in the Hong Kong people.

These electoral changes and other lesser reforms drove Beijing into a fit of rage, and Patten became the target of a memorably sustained, vituperative, and ad hominem propaganda campaign. Chinese officials called him a "whore," a "serpent," and a criminal to be "condemned for a thousand generations." (Sinologists were puzzled by the Chinese allegation that Patten was a "tango dancer," a supposedly dire insult, but Patten now clarifies the matter by reporting that he had once told Chinese negotiators that "it takes two to tango.") One major Chinese charge against Patten's electoral reforms was that he had violated a 1990 "secret agreement" between Douglas Hurd and Qian Qichen, Britain and China's respective foreign ministers. Patten writes that he was never briefed about the Hurd-Qian correspondence, only learned of it after Beijing's attacks on him, was certain he had not violated it, and, besides, could never get the Chinese to show him precisely where he had strayed.

Although Patten received stout backing from his masters in London, he was constantly assailed by OCHs who argued that, instead of trying to protect democracy, British policy should aim at "convergence" with China's plans for post-reversion Hong Kong. They called for a "through train" approach so that the turnover would cause a minimum of shock, which might adversely affect business. Patten was never impressed by the argument that China policy should be held hostage to the wishes of business. On the contrary, he felt that while Beijing might threaten to play off Western companies and governments against each other, little would be lost and much gained by sticking to political principle. Indeed, Patten recognized early on something that has seemingly escaped the notice of the State Department and the White House: most businesses that claim that their interests are being hurt by Western diplomacy toward China really have only themselves to blame for their difficulties with the Chinese. Their cries about misguided state policy are just alibis for their own failures. Patten notices, moreover, that American trade with China went up when U.S.-China relations seemed to be in trouble, while Germany, which strove to cultivate Europe's best relationship with China, saw its strenuous efforts result in a slight drop in its share of the China market, from 13 percent in 1986 to 12 percent a decade later. France, which weathered all manner of Chinese propaganda attacks for selling weapons to Taiwan, had almost exactly the same drop in market share as Germany. Patten also points out that during his period as governor, for all the Chinese fury against him and his country's policies, British trade with China doubled. Still, the message seems not to have gotten through. Even after leaving Hong Kong, Patten has been plagued by the timorous; Rupert Murdoch, apparently concerned that Beijing might not take kindly to Patten's book and apprehensive about his financial interests in China, compelled HarperCollins to cancel its contract with Patten.


Patten's approach to China is premised on the dangers of allowing greedy fantasies like Murdoch's to obscure cold realities. He reminds us that Britain sells over nine times as much to Belgium and Luxembourg as to China and three times as much to Australia. America sells about the same amount to these countries as to China. Patten is also guided by the basic fact that Asia's share of total world output was greater at the beginning of the century, when agriculture was still king, than at the height of its recent "miracle" growth period. Even with highly optimistic assumptions that discount the severity of the current crisis, Asia will not regain the share of the world's output that it had in 1900 until the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

Patten starts, therefore, by confessing that he is "not scared witless of the People's Republic of China or mesmerized by China's might and majesty." He finds it easy to punch holes in the logic and factual bases of both the advocates of engagement and containment -- between what he calls "ring-around-a-rosy diplomacy and the ring-of-steel school." Patten is just as tough on those who would have the West walk on eggs rather than offend Chinese sensibilities or prejudices as he is on those who want the West to prepare for a "coming conflict with China." Advocates of the "tread gently" school have spun for themselves elaborate but unsubstantiated theories about what it takes to inflate or deflate the Chinese ego, while those who cry that "the Chinese juggernaut is coming" fail to appreciate that the long history of China's ever-impending emergence as a world-shaker is a premier example of Murphy's Law in operation.

Patten counsels the West to be guided by common sense and a respect for its principles. This entails treating China with the same respect and dignity afforded any sovereign country. China's particular problems should be acknowledged, but at the same time Western abhorrence of China's human rights record should not be muted. Even so, Patten's call for evenhandedness comes across as somewhat hard-line and anti-Chinese, his intentions notwithstanding.


Managing a Chinese city made Patten unusually sensitive to the question of whether distinctive, continent-wide "Asian values" actually exist. He left Hong Kong while Asia was on the upswing, just before the economic crash. During the year spent writing his book, he noted the region's emerging financial difficulties, but it was too early for him to appreciate how profoundly serious Asia's problems are. Thus, much of Patten's extended rebuttal of the Singapore-Malaysia boasting about Asian virtues and Western decline now seems moot. The moral may be that, in a world economy in which the fluttering of butterfly wings in one region can cause economic chaos halfway around the globe, neither East nor West should engage in triumphalism.

Set aside the clever points in Patten's debater's brief. The new question remains: how could the same cultural patterns that once produced "miracles" now produce disasters? Asia's financial crisis is not just a bump in the region's economic road to success but a multiyear downturn. That will end much of what Patten calls "the Asian values ballyhoo." In the future, cultural analysis will have to be more precise to explain how much the same behavior patterns could both lift economies and then hurl them into deep trouble. Patten does not analyze in depth how "the dynamos seem [to have been] transformed into dominoes." Yet the world has now found that the virtues of frugality, hard work, family values, respect for authority, and close business-government cooperatives can become the vices of compulsive greed, single-minded inflexibility, nepotism, and outright corruption.

Indeed, one can take each individual Asian value and show both how it was ideologically distorted in all the polemics and how historically it in fact has produced both successes and disasters. Thus the Confucian principle of family solidarity was transformed by Lee Kuan Yew and his Singapore school into an obligation to conform to the will of the state, although Confucius actually taught that rulers should listen to the people and accept criticism. In practice, Asian "family values" made possible the complex networks of family and friends that fired the overseas-Chinese business and banking operations but in time slipped over into nepotism. In Indonesia, family values became the rule that the "first family comes first." When harnessed to stupid policies, the Chinese work ethic can compound disaster, as 50 years of communism in China have proved. The reliance upon informal arrangements rather than the transparency that goes with the rule of law led to extraordinary flows of capital, boosted by a new hubris that set aside concerns about profitability for the sake of ever more action -- and that capital flowed out just as quickly as it flowed in. The much-vaunted collaboration of Japanese bureaucrats, politicians, and business leaders once produced quick and farsighted action, but when tainted with corruption and imprudence, it also left Japanese banks with $1 trillion of bad debt. Chinese frugality, which can produce astonishingly high savings rates, can blend with greed to lead to compulsive, irrational gambling and persistent forays down dead-end streets. Consider the speculators still single-mindedly building skyscrapers in Shanghai even though those finished in 1997 have only 20 percent occupancy rates and those completed in 1998 are only 10 to 15 percent occupied. Better, they stubbornly believe, to tighten their belts and suffer a bit than to puncture a real estate bubble, thereby carrying the virtue of delayed gratification to an absurd extreme.

The twin passions of pride and anger that seem to motivate the champions of Asian values must be understood in the context of emerging Asian nationalism's historical struggle against Western colonialism, which, in its terminal phase, grew increasingly paternalistic. The generation that started the controversy over Asian values as a matter of "us-against-them" still has vivid memories of the profoundly emotional process of trying to articulate new national identities that would be both loyal to traditional cultures and reputable to the modern world culture exemplified by the West. The most Westernized Asians often felt compelled to prove that they had not sold out their identities, so they used a vocabulary that would both command the attention of and annoy their Western masters. Thus, early on, they spoke of the superiority of Eastern spiritual civilization over the crass, materialistic West, a formulation further energized by Gandhism. Now the search for self-esteem has taken the garb of asserting the superiority of an Asian commitment to the collective over the self-indulgent individualism rampant in the West.

Ironically, the issue of Asian values has found popular appeal only in those Asian countries that have the least coherent traditional cultures, such as multicultural Singapore or Malaysia, or are the most uncertain about their traditional culture's merits, like China, which has mounted a sustained campaign against its great Confucian heritage with first the May Fourth Movement and then with 50 years of communism. A further irony of the Asian values argument is that the collectivity now being idealized is the nation-state, itself a Western import. Traditional Asian group identities were family, clan, and ethnic lineage, all of which caused problems for constructing new national identities. The West's introduction of the idea of the modern nation-state forced Asian societies to try to strike the ideal balance between state and citizen, between the interests of the community and those of the individual. Today's advocates of Asian values, however, seem blissfully unaware that the question of balancing the common good and individual rights has been a central theme of the history of Western political thought ever since Socrates drank the hemlock. By drawing the line as they have, the Asian values polemicists seem mainly concerned with legitimizing authoritarianism.

His willingness to engage seriously in the Asian values debate shows Patten's respect for Asian sensibilities, even though he rejects their idealization of the state as the locus to which all individuals should sacrifice their rights. His reasoned approach raised the level of discourse above the polemical plane. Patten the governor was the object of sustained controversy. Patten the philosopher and foreign policy analyst is stimulating, but his level-headed, commonsense approach to problems tends to defuse controversy. Moreover, as Asians now have to rethink the way their values may have let them down, they may be more appreciative of Patten -- no longer the controversial colonial governor but now a sympathetic advocate of better East-West relations. His faith in free markets and political pluralism and his belief that the same virtues and failings can be found in all cultures make him a worthy spokesman for the West.

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  • Lucian W. Pye is Ford Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His books include The Spirit of Chinese Politics and Asian Power and Politics.
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