In March 1992, most unexpectedly, the Conservative Government in Britain won a general election that everyone had thought it was bound to lose. The sucessful campaign was master minded by the MP for Bath and Wells (a very safe Tory seat) and the best friend of the re-elected Prime Minister, Chris Patten.
But Patten had been so busy organising the national campaign that he was, to general surprise, not returned by his own constituency.
The usual solution to this turn of events is to offer the important politician either a peerage so he can go into the Lords and join the Government from there or the first safe seat that comes vacant (often an insignificant MP from a safe seat is kicked upstairs to the Lords and given a well paying sinecure to make his safe seat vacant).
But Patten, when asked "What can I do for you?" by his very grateful best friend, did not want either of these. To general amazement, he wanted to be the last British Governor of Hong Kong.
Chris Patten is the most controversial of Hong Kong's governors, even to this day. Like Sir John Pope-Hennessy, and indeed like the present Chief Executive, Sir Donald Tsang, he is a Catholic. Like Sir John Bowring, he was an ex-MP who suddenly found himself outside "the best Club in the world". And unlike every Governor since Bowring, he was not a career diplomat or colonial civil servant.
I very distinctly remember watching his arrival in Hong Kong; I was sitting in Freddie Clemo's study in Manila watching on BBC World TV as the Governor stepped ashore as tradition dictated, at Queen's Pier.
"Wrong!" said Freddie. "No hat and feathers!"
(Freddie was alluding to the time honoured uniform of a British Colonial Governor - uniform coat, cocked hat and ostrich plumes, as seen here worn by another famous colonial Governor, Sir Rex Hunt, who left, and returned to, the Falklands, thus attired, on the occasion of the late unpleasantness in the South Atlantic:
Freddie thought that Patten's departure from protocol might lead to a certain lack of respect from China.
What actually happened surprised everyone.
But most people did not set much store by this; Britain's power was waning and with less than five years to go China's power in the Colony (which was now more politely referred to as the Territory) was growing every hour. A Governor with a hot line to the British Prime Minister could not make much difference, against the tide of events.
Patten continued to behave differently to his predecessors; although, unlike his predecesors for many generations, he did not speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, he used to go for informal strolls in the streets, chatting to people and pressing the flesh.
In fact, he was behaving like the seasoned democratic politician that he actually was. Trouble was, Hong Kong had never seen such an animal before.
As my Taipan remarked, "When will he stop kissing babies in Mong Kok? Doesn't he realise he doesn't have to get elected in this job?"
Patten also used to make political speeches at the drop of a hat - no mere cutter of ribbons with a few kind words, like earlier Governors, he would deliver a twenty minute oration and - people listened.
He became the first and last Governor to acquire a Chinese nickname - Fat Pang - 肥彭 (Chinese nicknames were sought after amongst the gweilo community because they were only bestowed (behind your back) if you deserved one, for good or ill, and it was usually very hard to find out what yours was.)
Legco debates became very different; long diligently televised, they started to be watched. The subject of debate moved away from the usual municipal trivia and started to take on a broader view. Patten was a veteran of the House of Commons; Hong Kong's political class watched and learned.
The first group to take a serious dislike to Fat Pang was the business community. Legco was not meant to be a debating chamber; it was meant to be a rubber stamp for decisions arrived at over lunch.
Hong Kong developed political parties.
Strictly speaking, there had been parties since soon after WW2, but with one exception they were informal and had little influence.
The exception is not strictly speaking a party, though it sometimes behaves like one - technically, it is a statutory body.
I refer to the
- Heung Yee Kuk - 鄉議局 - the Rural Assembly - which was established under the Heung Yee Kuk Ordinance in 1959, to represent the views of the original inhabitants of the New Territories. You will recall from much earlier that the residents of the New Territories were from the outset the only citizens of Hong Kong who had not chosen to be there.
The Kuk is, as you would expect of a "Peasant's Party", conservative to the point of being reactionary, and can be relied on to turn out in force in defence of its members sacred privileges, such as cutting their daughters out of inheritance, etc. Needless to say it sees no need to use English or indeed Putonghwa for any purpose, and it doesn't, unless it absolutely has to.
The Kuk tends to line up behind the
- Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, ( 民建聯 ) which, as I am sure you have recognised, is the Communist Party of China when in Hong Kong and is the largest single party in the place, having been formed by the New China News Agency (see above) and enjoying the maximum possible "political favour" from the Mainland. Its late Chairman Ma Lik was a Tian An Men Square denier, which in Hong Kong liberal terms is not a million miles from being a Holocaust denier, though its fair to say that not all members of the DAB are Tian An Men Square deniers. It enjoys support from the Mainland- affiliated Trades Unions and is currently headed by a trades unionist, Tam Yiu Chung.
The main "plank" in the DAB's electoral offering is the view that ethnic Chinese people ought naturally to be patriotic, i.e. they ought to support the Mainland, where the CCP enjoys the Mandate of Heaven.
The DAB tends to enjoy support from the sort of coalition that only Hong Kong can produce - peasant farmers and fishermen, left wing trades unionists and Big Business.
Big Business also supports the
- Liberal Party, which is liberal in the Canadian or Australian sense of the word, i.e. it's conservative.
Moving now to those parties less closely aligned with Beijing and Big Business, we find the
- Democratic Party ( 民主黨 ) founded by Martin Lee, which having merged with the Frontier, founded by Emily Lau, is the biggest "pro-democracy" party and more or less classically liberal, and the
- Civic Party ( 公民黨 ) which seems to consist of academics and lawyers and which I would call classically social democratic, both of whom are outflanked on the left by the
- League of Social Democrats, who tend to support revolutionary Marxism but who certainly don't support the Mainland.
plus a few smaller parties.
I trust that's all perfectly clear?
Much colonial legislation simply consisted of enacting into local law British Acts of Parliament which were of local application, such as insurance law, building codes*, and so on, but the Legislative Council of a colony could also enact local ordinances of its own, subject of course to the Royal Assent, the Prerogative for this and other purposes having devolved upon the Governor.
In normal colonies, these arrangements were superseded as the colony moved towards, first, local self-government and, in due course, independence. New representative institutions were brought in with elections to them on the basis of universal adult suffrage**.
In Hong Kong, this never happened because the Mainland always made it perfectly clear that it did not want any such thing to happen.
Consequently Hong Kong was stuck with "Exco" and "Legco".
* Every right thinking Malaysian will tell you that Kuala Lumpur railway station, latitude 03 degrees 9 minutes North, 101 degrees 41 minutes East, has a roof designed to withstand three feet of snow.
The stock British response is, "Well, it's still standing" and to point out the wholly inadequate storm drains in Manila, which had the misfortune to be the capital of an American, rather than a British, Colony.
** Not that these always lasted very long, but every ex-British colony except the USA and Hong Kong started life as an independent nation with a freely elected Parliament on the Westminster model. The record for shortness of survival with the original independence constitution is held by British Somaliland, which lasted three weeks before voting to merge with Somalia - Somaliland seceded again (and re-established its parliament) in 1992, but not one single nation recognises it, despite the absence of piracy, al-qaeda, etc and the presence of the rule of law, taxes, schools, etc. The world is a funny place...