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The Book Murdoch Refused to Publish

CHINA, POWER, AND THE FUTURE OF ASIA.\o7 By Christopher Patten (Times Books: 306 pp., $25)\f7

September 20, 1998|DEREK DAVIES | Derek Davies was the former editor of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review for 25 years

Ironically, Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who refused to publish this admirable book on the spurious grounds that it was boring and that there were "negative aspects" in linking it with his company, HarperCollins, is the person most likely to gain materially from reading it. Already he has forfeited much respect, compensated Christopher Patten for the breach of contract and lost the services of his firm's senior editor, Stuart Proffitt (who objected to lying to Patten on Murdoch's behalf). Further profits have been wiped out by the departure from his lists of best-selling authors, headed by Jung Chang, whose phenomenally successful "Wild Swans" is to be followed shortly by a biography of Mao Tse-tung.

Murdoch opted out when, very belatedly, he realized that Patten's work was not likely to be Book of the Year among China's leaders, just as he had booted the BBC out of the satellite programs he was hoping to beam to the billion-odd potential consumers of China. However, the most cogent passages of "China, Power and the Future of Asia" constitute formidable arguments against kowtowing in either commercial or diplomatic relationships and in favor of dealing frankly and, when necessary, robustly with the Middle Kingdom.

From the moment China's leaders realized that the politician Britain had appointed as its last governor of Hong Kong was determined to push ahead with democratic reforms without obtaining their permission, Patten became one of history's most embattled colonial administrators. Chinese officials or Communist newspapers revived the uncivilized invective of the Cultural Revolution, denouncing him as a "jade prostitute" who would open his legs for anyone, as "the whore of the East" and as "a serpent." Lu Ping, head of the Chinese government department responsible for both Hong Kong and Macau, called Patten "a criminal who will be condemned for a thousand generations."

At the same time the British and Chinese business communities in Hong Kong, their eyes ever on the China market, joined in the chorus with depressingly few exceptions. The burden of their song was: "Patten is bad for business." Patten understands those who felt constrained to propitiate the powers-that-were-to-be but lambastes those who simply feared reform, who "were against competition, found monopolies extremely cozy, disliked open tendering (or open anything, for that matter) and believed that any regulation of markets or of corporate governance was thinly disguised socialism." He refuses to "personalize" the opposition by listing their names.

The Chinese authorities and the businessmen found anti-Patten allies among the Mandarinate of Sinologists of the British Foreign Office, experts who perhaps resented the loss of a plum job that had been in their gift to a mere politician. Again Patten names several of those "younger diplomatic Sinologists [who] after spending many character-forming years in the trenches negotiating with Peking had become hard-headed about China and the best way to do business with it." However, he does not identify those "vestiges of the old and very different orthodoxy" that lingered elsewhere in the Foreign Office, those who equated "diplomacy with being nice to foreigners" and those back in London who questioned, second-guessed and sabotaged the initiatives of the man in the field.

Patten does not even deign to mention the leader of this group, Sir Percy Cradock, a former ambassador to China who had been a special foreign policy advisor to prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. He and the then-governor of Hong Kong, David Wilson, had lost their jobs after Major's farcical visit to China in 1991 in a vain pursuit of Chinese cooperation in building the Hong Kong airport. His failure effectively demonstrated that the Foreign Office's policy of appeasement had failed to produce results. (Cradock had further infuriated Major by telling the press that the "cover story" for the visit--the human rights issue--was mere "froth.") Thereafter, in a series of articles, letters to the press and television and radio interviews, Cradock engaged in an unprecedented assault on Patten's policies, variously describing them as incompetent, stupid and "fatal."

Neither does Patten name a retired diplomat who supplied China's ambassador in London, then indulging in an energetic campaign of company boardroom intimidation, with a list of people to lobby. And Patten makes no attempt to assign blame for the Foreign Office's suspicious failure to brief him on a 1990 exchange of letters between Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and his Chinese opposite number, Qian Qichen, on the number of directly elected seats in the Legislative Council acceptable to China (20 in 1995, 30 by 2003), which could have been embarrassing had it involved a hard agreement.

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