Knowledge of China


If they are anything like us, most newspaper readers and television viewers must by now be tired of people claiming to know whether China will abolish Hong Kong's civil, as opposed to economic, liberties or not, as the case may be. We do not yet know. We comfort ourselves, however, with the knowledge that no one else knows yet either.

We marvel at the way in which Sir Edward Heath was able to assure a Hong Kong Chinese democrat on Newsnight not long ago that Chinese tradition does not know democracy as we know it in the West and that the democrat - who rather plaintively explained to Sir Edward that he was Chinese - was barking up the wrong tree. There was a time when the West did not know democracy as we now know it either. We assume that Sir Edward's understanding of Chinese tradition has been arrived at without his being affected by the sums of money he has earned from consultancies to do with that vast country. He was always a bit of an authoritarian in British politics, what with his statutory incomes policy. What could be more contrary to Western traditions of freedom than the belief that the state should have a say in everyone's income?

At least Sir Edward can plead ignorance - not that he ever would. China's language and culture are as unknown to him as they are to most other Westerners. Not so the old China hands.

As far as one can tell, they are divided as to whether China will do horrible things to Hong Kong's civil liberties. But a majority of them seem to think that the rest of us should not make a fuss about it if they do. Britain 'mishandled' the changeover, they say. We should not have sent out, in Mr Patten, someone who in Peking's eyes, would be seen as a 'failed' politician, that is, a politician whom the vagaries of electoral swing had deprived of a seat through no fault of his own. If Peking had not understood that this is no great sign of failure, they are not quite the subtle diplomats and shrewd intelligences that the old China hands would have us believe they are.

One thing can be predicted with reasonable certainty. If China does snuff out Hong Kong's freedoms of speech and assembly, the West's pro-Peking claque will assure the world that it does not much matter. Hong Kong is about money-making, not least for them. Hong Kong Chinese have never really wanted any of this Western democratic stuff anyway.

To all of us non-China hands the snuffing out of those liberties will indeed be serious, and frightening. …

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