Magazine article The Spectator

A Man Capable of Apologising for the Irish Potato Famine Should Not Avoid Hong Kong Now

Magazine article The Spectator

A Man Capable of Apologising for the Irish Potato Famine Should Not Avoid Hong Kong Now

Article excerpt

The Governor will be there. The Foreign Secretary will go. The heir to the throne sees it as his duty to attend. For the Prime Minister now to back out on the grounds that the occasion looks likely to prove embarrassing would be unworthy, and an ominous sort of farewell to those we leave behind.

In little more than two weeks' time, Hong Kong must be returned to China. This is a pity but cannot be avoided. The handover may take place in circumstances which, if Peking is minded to contrive this, will appear humiliating to the former imperial power and intimidating to the citizens we are abandoning.

This too is a pity. And of course it could have been avoided - Sir Percy Cradock is quite right. If over the last five years Chris Patten had been prepared to lick the boots of communist China, Peking would have been happy to save the Governor's face during the ceremonials which will precede the imperial power's departure. But that was too high a price to pay. It is to Chris Patten's and John Major's undying credit that they long ago made it clear to Peking that if we could not stop China pushing Hong Kong around, we would at least refuse to connive in it.

Former Foreign Office chaps for whom the word 'connive' describes one of the higher pleasures of life would have done things differently. They could have secured a handover which despatched to the archives photographs and newsreel of everybody smiling - like those 1930s pictures of Churchill meeting Mussolini. Mercifully they were thwarted. Upon the faces of those looking toward the future we are now more likely to see expressions consonant with the future they face. Britain's dignitaries and officials will look awkward, Peking's stubborn and unfeeling, and the whole occasion anxious, confused, humiliating and sad.

Far from being an end-of-era snapshot to be regretted, no other picture would be appropriate. Something is about to die. The ceremonies, besides being a 'handover', are also a kind of funeral, and should look like one. That we were in the end powerless to save liberty and the rule of law in Hong Kong in no way relieved us of the duty to try, and we did try. That we failed in no way justifies our pretending to look pleased about it. Actions are rendered fitting not by results alone, but by the circumstances they confront. Impotent in the presence of tyranny, a good man should still shake his fist even if, for all the difference it will make, he might as well lend a hand. 'It needs must be that offences come, but woe unto those men through whom they come' (Luke xvii 1).

Peking's likely aim in its own planning for the handover ceremonies will be to find ways of embarrassing the Governor and his British guests. This would not be difficult. They could fail to send a representative of comparable status to Prince Charles or the Prime Minister. They could play Box and Cox with the arrangements until the last minute. They could swear in their usurping lick-spittle Legislative Council early, or withdraw their new chief executive, C.H. Tung, from the British half of the occasion. If surprise is Peking's aim it is probably pointless to speculate how this may be achieved, beyond remarking that there is no way Government House can guarantee Tony Blair the sort of happy snaps his premiership has with such success collected for the album so far. …

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