By Joyce Hor-Chung Lau
HONG KONG — The last British governor of Hong Kong, best known for trying to push democracy here before the handover to Chinese rule, found himself back in the former colony the night a democratic exercise electrified the world.
Chris Patten, who fought with the Chinese government over everything from free elections to a free press, sat in a hotel suite overlooking the Hong Kong skyline and contemplated the U.S. presidential election.
"Here is a politician who actually believes in the political process, who believes in the intelligence of the average man or woman," the veteran politician, now chancellor of the University of Oxford, said of President-elect Barack Obama.
Patten once battled the notion that average Hong Kongers were somehow not ready - not intelligent, educated or patriotic enough - to choose their own leaders. Despite his efforts, Hong Kongers today choose only half their legislators and not their chief executive. But they do retain freedoms of speech and assembly barred in mainland China. Patten had returned to a test tube of democratic development.
Earlier in the day, Patten had met with Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state who crossed party lines to endorse Obama and was also in Hong Kong for an Asia tour. Patten said Powell had obviously been "moved" by Obama's win.
"Obama got more people to vote; he excited the world; he drew people into a participatory democracy," Patten said of the impressive number who waited hours at the polls. "That's his great strength - popular mobilization, but not in a populist way."
Asked how a lifelong conservative like himself felt about one of the more liberal American senators, this big ruddy bear of a man, in his fine dark suit, his spectacles falling down his nose, sank into the cushy sofa and sighed. "I turned into a simpering teenager on a first date."
Patten has always had a certain political prescience. In his latest book, "What Next? Surviving the Twenty-First Century," which was released last month, he mentions both Obama and Senator John McCain. He snips at the Republican candidate's hawkish views on the Iraq war but praises Obama as an example of the category-blurring mentality he thinks will define this century. He recounts Obama's telephone call to the Kenyan politician Raila Odinga during the violence after the 2007 elections and how, in this interconnected world, the two men trace their roots to the same village. Odinga is now prime minister.
Patten writes like he speaks. His almost-500-page book explores a bewildering array of topics, from the environment to world politicking, from the small arms trade to epidemics. It is, however, not a litany of grievances, but an intellectual work that connects seemingly unconnected issues. Given its heft, it moves at a quick clip and adheres to its own inner logic.
"What Next?" can be read as a sort of "Globalization: Why Not?" Its basic premise is that the East vs. West baggage of the 20th century has been left behind, and that there is little need to fear a more integrated, mixed-up world.
In the interview, Patten praised what he called "the turbulence of freedom." He dismissed the idea that political risk - whether in electing the first black U.S. president, or allowing more democracy in China - should be a deterrent.
"You need to stir things up in order to prevent instability," he said, going in opposition to a Chinese mentality that prizes social stability above all else.
Patten does not worry, as many do, about the possibility of a Communist-ruled China dominating international politics. He does not buy into the widespread fear that China, with its economic might and growing clout, might somehow upset the world balance.
"I don't think China is going to demonstrate that autocratic liberal capitalism is the wave of the future," he said.
For someone who worked as the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Patten seems to put more emphasis on America's role in the world than Europe's.
"America is still the only superpower," he said, in a comment he later repeated at a dinner talk that night at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club.
When Patten went to Pyongyang as European envoy in 2002, he said the only thing Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, asked about was what U.S. policy might be. The same was true of official discussions elsewhere on everything from nuclear nonproliferation to disease control.
"Europe can't solve these problems without America, and it's vainglorious to pretend we can."
Patten sees Obama's election as an opportunity for America to restore its moral authority, and not only because of the novelty of his race.
"I don't think any American diplomat could raise the issue of human rights with any authority for the last several years, because of aberrations like Guantánamo," Patten said, describing the U.S. military prison as "a concentration camp located just outside the jurisdiction of American courts and due process."
Like many, he has a list of concerns he hopes Obama will tackle, like the U.S. financial crisis that is affecting the rest of the world. At the same time, he warned against putting all the world's problems on Obama's slim shoulders, and saw instead a chance for the rest of the world to re-engage the United States.
"Because of the Iraq debacle, Europe has spent the last five years sitting on their hands, criticizing America, saying, 'If only we had a more multilateral president in Washington,"' Patten said. "Now that we've got one, are we going to send more support to Afghanistan, or take a lead on climate change? Are Britain and France prepared to lead in reducing nuclear stockpiles? Europe has to step up to the plate, as you Americans say."
Patten also speaks less of Asia than one would expect, especially given his high standing here even a decade after his departure.
During his last book tour through Hong Kong, in 2005, there were lines of fans waiting to see him. This time, he still had journalists waiting outside his hotel room for appointed slots set up weeks in advance.
He was more jocular in public than in his interview. At the Foreign Correspondents Club, he addressed the hard-drinking journalists at their "temple of sobriety," then identified himself as "the last colonial oppressor" - perhaps as a jab to a Chinese member who asked if Patten regretted his actions in Hong Kong. (He didn't).
Patten apologized for being double-booked and having to be whisked off after the soup; he was having his main course at another venue. He stressed it was not because of any lack of enthusiasm for the roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and trifle the club's Chinese chefs had cooked up for him, and this drew laughs. He is still known here affectionately as "Fei Pang," or "Fat Patten." The waiter nodded solemnly at this news, then poured him another glass of wine.
During the interview, Patten said he was ready for a quieter life. At Oxford, he intends to "spend a little more time reading and gardening, and getting to know my grandchildren." Perhaps he'd write another book, on social equality.
But over dinner he seemed unready to give up the spotlight quite yet. He delivered jokes and stories, tamped down a cough with a glass of wine, spoke fluently about every major issue in the world and ignored signals from his publicist that it was time to go.
Finally, like a kid not wanting to go to bed, he asked, "May I please skip the soup and just take more questions?" And he did.