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West-Eastern Storyman: Lord Patten on China and Diplomacy

Lord Patten’s address on “China and the Future Global Order” began in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he delivered two opening anecdotes not about the dominant Asian power and its geopolitical significance, but rather about the Europe of bygone centuries.

The first was from the Congress of Vienna. During those days in 1814-15, as the aristocratic diplomatic corps of the old monarchies descended on the Habsburg capital, their lavish lifestyle aroused the scorn of certain ambassadors. “The Congress does not march to its goal,” wrote one; “it dances”. And yet—as Patten emphasises—the diplomacy of that celebrated conference delivered peace for a Europe stepped-in so far in conflict. The manner and ritual of diplomacy may have changed, but the fact remains: well-brokered treaties can usher in decades of prosperity.

The second anecdote was from the life of Jewish author Stefan Zweig. This son of Vienna, who toured that city’s high society circuits a century after the restorationist diplomats, was later forced to flee his home under the threat of Nazi persecution. Having settled in Brazil, he wrote “The World of Yesterday”, a literary ode to the dying life of the Habsburg Empire which Lord Patten numbers among his favourite books. Zweig and his wife committed suicide after completing the book, with no hope for a return to the eulogised status quo ante. Patten suggests that Zweig would have been heartened by post-war developments, but this story is essentially tragic—the cruelties unleashed when the seething cauldron of international relations is allowed to boil over.

Two anecdotes: one with a message of hope, the other of losing it. To say that these represent two possible outlooks on China’s relationship with the Western Bloc would be impossibly reductive. But nor were they just arbitrary, indulgent ramblings of the kind popularised by another Balliol politician. Both historical vignettes speak to the complexity of international relations and its continuity between past and present, between West and East. And as the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten’s life serves to bridge these eras and civilizations.

This governorship he presents as a kind of Indian summer on the Pearl River Estuary, his paternalistic leadership serving to sweeten the memory of imperial rule. In fact, Patten is not just looking back through the rose-tinted glasses of an inherited colonial ethic: his time in office was indeed one of democratisation, liberalisation and a distributive economic policy of such a vigorous nature that, as he recalls, the CCP accused him of being a socialist. But the arbitrariness of his accession does have a whiff of old regime Europe to it: “I became governor of Hong Kong because I lost my seat in Bath.” he muses; “Sweet are the uses of adversity”.

Such experiences naturally shape the political outlook of their subject. To some extent, it seems, Lord Patten senses a loss akin to Zweig’s grief for a departed belle époque. His lifetime has seen, he reminds us, unprecedented peace in Europe. Born on the day the Wehrmacht surrendered in Crimea, the post-war order, forged in his infancy, created a world in which Westerners lived under extended conditions of prosperity and, after 1991, security too. The CCP’s—and particularly Xi Jinping’s—pivot to a less open policy, both economically and socially, threatens this peace. For Patten, the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan is a case in point: a westernised democracy facing an ever-less cooperative revanchist neighbour. If this cauldron boils over, the rules-based international order may be the first victim.

The volta facie of CCP policy, from Deng’s apparent willingness to integrate fully into the global economy, to Xi’s record of non-adherence to international treaties (including trade treaties) is of course far from inexplicable. To explain it, Lord Patten furnishes us with another fascinating anecdote, this time from his own life. He recalls a visit of Wang Qishan, the current Vice President of the PRC, to Oxford, where he expressed particular interest in the Bodleian’s Tocqueville collections. Wang admires L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution above all else, presumably because he has never been made to write a collection on it. The text, Patten suggests, gives him two crucial insights applicable to China: firstly, people don’t get easier to govern as they grow wealthier; and secondly, authoritarian regimes are more vulnerable when they try to reform. In a remarkable show of east-west engagement then, it seems the CCP’s anti-revolutionary policy is taking notes from the errors of the Bourbons. Of course, this hammers home an earlier theme: the principles of governance are perennial and international. The earlier invocation of nineteenth and twentieth century European diplomacy is to be understood in this context.

Lord Patten lived the imperial life decades after most of Britain’s colonies broke free from their imposed tutelage. As such, he talks like a man from the deep past, weaving personal and historical anecdotes together with such effortlessness that one struggles to distinguish the two without reference to his birth date. His opinions carry the authority of all his cumulative experience. He warns us that Hong Kong is the canary down the coal mine: China mistreats her now only how it intends to mistreat other polities it gains dominance over. So the west must, he concludes, constrain if it cannot contain. Limit the extent of China’s wrongdoing, while accepting its inevitable role on the world stage. Such realpolitik may not reinvigorate the lost pax americana which his generation has so much enjoyed, but it perhaps takes its lead from the great nineteenth century statesmen whose determination for peace refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Image credit: Pruneau / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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