Percy Cradock: ‘Maggie’s mandarin’ and Patten’s nemesis

Although Sir Percy Cradock (1923-2010) was a titan of British diplomacy, he has for many years been targeted by Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten. In 2022, whenever asked to comment upon the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to China, Patten rarely missed an opportunity to tarnish Cradock’s memory.

When, moreover, he published The Hong Kong Diaries last year, Patten reserved what The Economist called “particular contempt for Sir Percy Cradock”. Having told the Legislative Council in 1995 that Cradock was simply a “dyspeptic, retired ambassador”, he described him in his diaries as “clever, conceited and acerbic,” and the reasons are intriguing.

Whereas Cradock was Britain’s ambassador to China from 1978 to 1983, having previously served as political counselor in the British mission in Beijing in the 1960s, his experience of China spanned over 30 years. He was intimately involved in the negotiations over Hong Kong’s future, and was described in International Affairs (Chatham House’s official journal) as “probably the key player in the Sino-British negotiations on Hong Kong’s future at the critical time between 1978 and 1992.”

Once Hong Kong’s future assumed center stage in the early 1980s, Cradock, a fluent Mandarin speaker and a qualified barrister, came into his own. He understood the sensitivities of the situation, appreciated the bottom lines of both sides, and had an instinctive feel for what was achievable. He recognized that, while China held most of the cards, both countries wanted Hong Kong to succeed, and he saw this common ground as the basis of a lasting settlement.

When Cradock advised his prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was also a barrister, on how to deal with China, she accepted his advice, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Although notoriously strong-willed, she was also a pragmatist. Once Cradock explained the options on Hong Kong, she struck a deal with Beijing that satisfied both sides, and guaranteed its future.

In 1997, when recalling the Sino-British negotiations, Cradock said, “If we wanted to do our best for Hong Kong, and this had to be the overriding objective, we had to cooperate with China.” Although this “did not mean agreeing with everything China proposed, tough negotiation was always necessary and always practiced”, it meant that “any security after 1997 had to be underwritten by the new sovereign power”.

Once Thatcher had concluded the negotiations, she informed her Cabinet it was “an excellent result, progress beyond all expectations”, and this was largely down to Cradock. Indeed, Sir Robin McLaren, who served as British ambassador to China (1991-1994) and then led the British side of the Sino-British Liaison Group, said his “contribution to the success of the whole enterprise was second to none”.

In other words, Cradock helped to make a reality of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” vision, and history owes him a debt of gratitude.

Such was Thatcher’s reliance upon Cradock that he became known as “Maggie’s mandarin”, and she made him not only her foreign policy adviser but also chairman of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee. She also reportedly offered him the Hong Kong governorship in 1987, after Sir Edward Youde died, and if he had accepted, the run-up to 1997 would undoubtedly have been far smoother than it was.

When John Major, who, as foreign secretary, had worked briefly with Cradock, replaced Thatcher in 1990, he reappointed him to both positions. He recognized Cradock’s worth, and later wrote that he “thrived on dry, intellectual vigor, had a contempt for sentiment, weighed his words carefully and, when he spoke, was worth listening to.”

Not surprisingly, Cradock was also very highly regarded by his colleagues within the foreign office itself, where he had many disciples, including Sir David Wilson, who became Hong Kong’s governor in 1987. Sir Christopher Meyer (who served as ambassador to the United States) recalled that “none of them was as great a China expert as Percy”, who was “an unsentimental, dry, tough, rigorous man with an intimidating reputation”.

In finally resolving the Hong Kong question, the future democratic arrangements loomed large, and here Cradock also played a key role. Having been involved in discussions with Beijing as late as 1989, he was delighted once it was agreed (as reflected in the Basic Law) that half of the seats (30) in the third-term Legislative Council would be directly elected, which was achieved by 2004. This was a huge step forward, unimaginable in the British era, during most of which the legislative councilors were appointed by the governor, and it demonstrated Beijing’s faith in the city’s democratic potential.

Although, after the Basic Law’s enactment in 1990, things initially proceeded smoothly, the situation deteriorated rapidly once Chris Patten became Hong Kong’s governor in 1992. A political bruiser with a big ego but little understanding of the Far East, he imagined he could make a name for himself by confronting China, even if it meant whipping up false hopes in Hong Kong. All he succeeded in doing, however, was to upset the apple cart, endangering the prospects of what was called the “through-train”.

Although, after the Basic Law’s enactment in 1990, things initially proceeded smoothly, the situation deteriorated rapidly once Chris Patten became Hong Kong’s governor in 1992. A political bruiser with a big ego but little understanding of the Far East, he imagined he could make a name for himself by confronting China, even if it meant whipping up false hopes in Hong Kong. All he succeeded in doing, however, was to upset the apple cart, endangering the prospects of what was called the “through-train”

From the outset, Patten behaved like the proverbial bull in a china shop, claiming omniscience and maligning anybody who tried to caution him, including the city’s business leaders (“creeps” and “toadies”).

Although the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, in exchanges with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, had expressed the hope that “by agreement with you”, faster progress towards democracy might be made in subsequent elections in 1995, Patten, who claimed ignorance of this, introduced electoral changes without consulting Beijing. This, of course, was asking for trouble, and Patten unilaterally expanded the number of potential voters for the 1995 Legislative Council elections, with 10 councilors also being elected by an 800-member Election Committee, which would itself be chosen by popular ballot.

This incensed Beijing, not only because it violated the Hurd-Qian understanding, but also because it appeared to be part of a wider political conspiracy by London to tie its hands after 1997.

Indeed, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who was Thatcher’s foreign secretary when the joint declaration was signed in 1984, commented that the Chinese had a right to feel aggrieved by Patten’s reform plans. He famously described Hong Kong as a “Ming vase” that neither side should drop, and he recognized that “Hong Kong prospers when Beijing and London are in harmony”, something Patten could never get his head around.

Although Beijing indicated that, if Patten implemented his half-baked scheme in 1995, the new council would be abolished in 1997, he decided he knew best, and pressed ahead. Although this imperiled the prospects of a smooth transition, Patten, regardless of the consequences, rejoiced in posing as a “champion of democracy”.

This, he must have reasoned, would not only make him popular in Hong Kong and boost his standing in the UK, but would also look good on his CV once he left Hong Kong (and, of the plum positions that subsequently came his way, none was more lucrative than the European Union’s commissionership, which he eagerly accepted).

As Patten played fast and loose with Hong Kong’s future, the alarm bells were ringing, and nobody was more condemnatory than Cradock, who feared for Thatcher’s settlement. He said, “We are shooting ourselves famously in the foot in Hong Kong”, and accused Patten of “a fatal miscalculation”. He explained that the Chinese saw his plans as “a U-turn in British policy and a breach of the constitutional and political settlement enshrined in the joint declaration, the agreement on directly elected seats and the Basic Law”.

In 1997, moreover, Cradock pointed out that Patten’s record “is a story of a bad mistake, which has left Hong Kong worse off in terms of protection and democracy than it need have been”, and so it proved.

In response, Patten (and his acolytes) rounded on Cradock, accusing him of having “gone native” and kowtowing to Beijing. He had, however, met his match, and Cradock, as a former president of the Cambridge Union Society (Cambridge University’s prestigious debating club), gave as good as he got.

In 1995, for example, when Patten was absent from the discussions that Qian Qichen conducted with British officials in London, Cradock branded him the “incredible shrinking governor,” which must have rankled. He also observed that “he is rapidly becoming marginalized as the Chinese and British governments work together to reduce the damage his reforms have done”, which must have also hit home.

Although John Major, who knew even less about Hong Kong than Patten, was happy enough to play along with his subordinate’s grandstanding, there were wiser heads in the British government, regrettably sidelined. Michael Heseltine, for example, who served as deputy prime minister during Patten’s governorship, realized that Patten was playing with fire.

In 2000, when recalling Patten’s electoral reforms, Heseltine asked, “How could we expect the Chinese to accept such a unilateral approach so shortly before 1997?” He agreed with Cradock that, if the Chinese did not endorse Patten’s reforms, “they would simply remove them, which is what they did”.

As Patten was a close friend of Major’s, and had, as Conservative Party chairman, engineered his victory (against the odds) in the general election of 1992, he enjoyed a virtually free hand once he got to Hong Kong. Although Major was by then increasingly preoccupied with his European Union difficulties, his overreliance on Patten was unfortunate, and resulted in the wiser counsels of people like Cradock, Heseltine and Howe (and even the former prime minister, Edward Heath) counting for little.

As Heseltine recalled, the story of Patten’s governorship “illustrates, I believe, the dangers and complications inherent for any prime minister in appointing a personal friend to so sensitive an official post”, and the people of Hong Kong paid the price of Major’s nepotism.

In return for having pointed out the error of his ways, Cradock has been the butt of Patten’s criticism for almost 30 years. Given his vanity, he can never forgive Cradock for having been vindicated by history. As Sir Christopher Meyer has noted, once Patten departed, “Hong Kong went back to the system Percy had negotiated,” meaning Cradock had the last laugh.

Indeed, not only was the Patten-created legislature scrapped in 1997, depriving Hong Kong of its legislative through-train, but great harm was also caused to Sino-British relations. In other words, Cradock was proved right, and, as a bad loser, Patten has been sulking ever since.

He is currently the patron of Hong Kong Watch, the anti-China propaganda outfit run by the serial fantasist Benedict Rogers. As such, he spends his days rubbing shoulders with some of Britain’s vilest Sinophobes, and is never happier than when flinging brickbats at the city for which he once professed to care. However pathetic, it is a fitting end for somebody who promised so much but delivered so little, and who naively imagined he knew better than anybody else.

As for Cradock, his reputation is secure, having come out on the right side of history. A brilliant diplomat, he did far more for Hong Kong than Patten ever did, and both the UK and China can be grateful to him for his wisdom at a critical time. Although he died in 2010, his remarkable record is the shield that protects his legacy from the sniping in which Patten continues to indulge.

As the historian, Lord (Peter) Hennessy, has explained, Cradock “had an immense sense of the vectors of power in the world”, and realized “that history dealt us (Britain) a certain hand, and we had to play it with maximum skill”.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.