Were things really better under the Brits?

February 27, 2016 08:05
A file photo shows former British PM Margaret Thatcher (center) at a construction site during a Hong Kong visit, accompanied by Chris Patten (second from right), the city’s last colonial governor. Photo: HKEJ

An intervention recently by Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last colonial governor, into the discussion over erosion of civil liberties in the city has, yet again, ignited debate over the British colonial legacy.

Caught between the distorted prism of nostalgia and the new Beijing-flavored form of political correctness, the picture of the colonial legacy is very much distorted.

Given the current abysmal state of Hong Kong governance you will hear many people saying that everything was better under the Brits and that the shambles we see today has replaced a golden age of competent and fair rule. 

On the other side of the coin are the serried ranks of so-called patriots who like to talk about the way in which Hong Kong has been liberated from foreign domination and has been gloriously reunited with the Motherland. You will not, however, hear them attempting to make the case for the superior competence of the new rulers; apparently even flag wavers embrace a reality check.

Yet a reality check is also badly needed for those who see the colonial past through rose-tinted glasses. The bulk of the colonial period was marked by highly bureaucratic and slothful government, which helped Hong Kong become a very poor backwater of little interest to anyone.

The turning point had nothing at all to do with the Brits; it came following the Communist Revolution on the Mainland, giving rise not only to an enormous influx of money and talent from across the border but also creating a unique middleman role for a colony that had spent a century looking for a way to make its mark.

Hong Kong had not only been a backwater in Asia but it was also a backwater in the eyes of its colonial masters. The jewel in the imperial crown was India. Elsewhere in Asia, the brighter and higher flying colonial officials were posted to Singapore and Malaya.

Many of the officials who came to Hong Kong were distinctly second grade yet had an exalted idea of their personal superiority and that of their race. There were exceptions, including the governors John Bowring (1854-59) and John Pope Hennessy (1877-82) who were well ahead of their time and rather unpopular among the insular British community that lorded it over this rather small colony.

The end of Japan's occupation of Hong Kong after World War II promised to produce profound change but the reform-minded Governor Mark Young, who presided over the resumption of sovereignty, was consistently thwarted by the local elite and they succeeded in ensuring his removal.

So, despite the vast influx of people and the impact of the revolution across the border, Hong Kong’s potential continued to be curbed by a lethal combination of conservative administrators, powerful vested interests and general indifference from London, where the colony was largely seen as an annoying problem.

The old Colonial Office governors had been replaced by diplomats, lacking the administrative skills of their predecessors. 

It was not until the late 1970s that things began to change and far too little credit is given to the small groups of local people, mainly professionals, who emerged and started to demand change. As ever they were branded as troublemakers but they caught the mood for reform and, having come to the surface following the turbulent years of rioting in the late 1960s, they could persuasively argue that maintenance of the status quo was not going to work.

The big event of the 1980s was, of course, the negotiations for Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese sovereignty. While the diplomats busied themselves with this matter, a growing number of Hongkongers, a first generation born and bred here, focused their attention on a wide range of issues that changed the way this place was run.

Even the staid civil service underwent profound change with local people moving up to the most senior positions and women, largely excluded from all access to the upper echelons, very much more in evidence.

The ethos and competence of the service was transformed, creating a strong esprit de corps among its members. Not only were those running the service planning to make their lives here (this included a large number of expatriates) but their main point of reference was neither London nor Beijing. They were, in other words, committed to Hong Kong.

Yet the old system of flying out governors from the diplomatic service persisted and in men such as Murray MacLehose, Edward Youde and David Wilson, there was a level of commitment to the new spirit and a willingness to embrace reform, albeit more slowly in some areas than others.

The change no one anticipated, including the man who was at the centre of it, came with the arrival of the last governor, Chris Patten, destined for high ministerial office in Britain but derailed by loosing his seat in parliament. 

Lord Patten, as he became, was not only the most powerful governor Hong Kong ever had but he also came without ties to the old order and benefited from a direct line of communication with Britain's prime minister. 

As someone who had spent a lifetime working inside British politics (with a brief adventure into the American system), the non-elected Patten nevertheless had the mindset of an elected politician and approached his job neither as a bureaucrat, nor a diplomat but as a leader who had to work hard to get the people of Hong Kong onside.

Rarely has the presence of a single individual so dramatically changed things, even though it could be argued that some previous governors were equally dynamic and forward thinking but they crucially lacked the backing of their masters in London.

Patten became the most popular governor ever to have presided over Hong Kong and although a great deal of his time in office was spent fighting battles that were ultimately failures, it is hard to argue that he did not transform the way this place was governed.

Many of those who are nostalgic for British rule focus entirely on Patten’s time in office. Yet there are fertile grounds for criticism of this period, not least seen in his failure to address poverty issues and his initial naivety in expecting the tycoon class to back him.

Much of this is now forgotten, and in the decades since his departure, many of the constitutional reforms he introduced have been reversed, leading critics to bemoan his timidity in failing to create more solid foundations for representative government.

His successor came to office borne aloft by a sea of goodwill but Tung Chee-hwa managed to dissipate it in short order. A half-hearted attempt to restore the credibility of government under the former colonial official Sir Donald Tsang initially appeared to be working but he too failed. As for Leung Chun-ying, the third chief executive, well, there is no need to consult history books to see where we are with him.

So, if we are to contemplate Hong Kong’s history, there is a need to be realistic about the entire period of colonial rule, contemplating its many shortcomings and lost opportunities. Looking to the future requires understanding the unique society that was formed under British rule on this "barren rock".

This has shaped something called the spirit of Hong Kong with a love for liberty and a tenacious sense of belonging that was never envisaged by the British and most certainly is not in the plans of the new masters, yet they have to find a way of dealing with it. 

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.