The Book Murdoch Tried To Quash


China, Power, and the Future of Asia

By Christopher Patten

Times Books 304pp $25

I arrived in Hong Kong one month after Chris Patten came to town in July, 1992. It was the beginning of an exciting time, as the colony's last British governor tried modestly to expand democracy despite intense opposition from China's Communist leaders. He angered the comrades so much that they referred to him as "the whore of the East."

Now, after reflecting on his five years in Asia, Patten draws some searing conclusions in East and West: China, Power, and the Future of Asia. This is the book that caused a flap in February, when publisher HarperCollins reneged on a contract to publish it in Britain. At first, the publishing house suggested that the manuscript was below standards. Later, it was forced to apologize when an internal memo surfaced, suggesting another motivation: corporate worries about friction with China, where HarperCollins' boss, Rupert Murdoch, has many business interests.

As expected, Patten takes aim at the Chinese. But they're not his only targets. He admonishes the British for holding back the development of a democratic political culture in Hong Kong. He urges the West to stop "coddling dictators" who are expert at playing off one batch of barbarians against another. And he condemns the mainland for its curtailment of civil liberties, accusing the Communist Party of "cynicism and decadence." "The Chinese government believes that all it has to do is to crack the whip--threaten a blocked order here, a purchase from a rival there...and we will all jump back into line. And by and large we actually do...."

But East and West is not a screed against critics who objected to Patten's unbending commitment to democratic principles and his willingness to stand up to Beijing. Nor is it a memoir. (Regrettably, he dedicates only three of the book's 10 chapters to Hong Kong, and these lack the drama of the best inside accounts.) The book is mainly an attempt to assess such lofty concepts as whether there is a correlation between economic prosperity and political pluralism. Patten believes there is.

He dismisses the idea that so-called Asian values, with their emphasis on stability, hierarchy, and family, are responsible for regional growth. Progress in the East, he argues, has more to do with free trade and technology than with anything inherently Asian. The next millennium, he believes, belongs to open societies where innovation and creativity thrive.

Sound familiar? Such insights would have been more thought-provoking during Asia's boom, when authoritarian leaders got away with heavy-handed policies because they could also take credit for high growth rates. Now, more than a year into the financial crisis, any number of analysts have already made Patten's point that "Asian values" were just "a shorthand for the justification of authoritarianism, bossiness, and closed collusion rather than open accountability in economic management." And who seriously talks about any Asian economic "miracle" these days?

Patten's most provocative chapter is on China. He contends that the West should treat it like any other country and refuse to kowtow to a regime that is "at the end of an era." There is no correlation between bending to Beijing and benefiting economically, he says.

On the other hand, Patten believes that trade issues should be kept separate from human rights and other political hot potatoes. He says Washington's yearly review of China's most favored nation trade status "distorts policy" and "plays into China's hands." Beijing doesn't believe the U.S. will yank MFN, so it doesn't modify its behavior.

It is also not in Washington's interest, Patten argues, to impede the free flow of goods. He believes we should negotiate hard with China on trade issues, drop "our Marco Polo-like obsessions with the Chinese market," and let business leaders determine whether China is worth the risk. He even suggests that "a moratorium on high-level trade visits" would be "a great bonus all around." At the same time, governments should pursue issues from weapons proliferation to human rights forcefully in international forums and directly with China.

It's really the West--and not China--that has the upper hand, as Patten sees it. "Without our money and our purchase of Chinese goods, the very future of the Communist regime would be imperiled," he says. "We spin the wheels for them."

That's worth saying. But as thoughtful as this book may be, it wasn't the one I wanted to read. There are plenty of pundits around to examine the Asian crisis. But Patten was uniquely placed to give personal insights on the struggle for Hong Kong's heart and soul in the last days of the British empire. For such an outspoken leader, he certainly shied away from naming names of those who lobbied to curb freedoms that he believes are essential to Hong Kong's well-being.

Patten's hands-on leadership is missed by many people in Hong Kong, especially since his successor, a tycoon with no apparent political skills, seems to vanish whenever controversy arises. A consummate politician, Patten thrives on controversy and continues to generate it. Recently, a Hong Kong bookstore canceled a book-signing session, saying his analysis was too critical of China. (What on earth could the owners have expected from Patten?) I'm sure the last governor will have a few choice words to say about that.

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