“A chartered British Airways 747 took a large party of official representatives from Heathrow to Hong Kong and I found myself and my staff on the top deck in what is normally Club Class. It took me some time to realise that this was not first class(!) although it puzzled me as to why the seat seemed so uncomfortable. I then discovered that others like Edward Heath, Douglas Hurd, the new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, several former Governors of Hong Kong such as Lord Maclehose and Lord Wilson and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, were comfortably ensconced in first class immediately below us. “Such is the end of the Empire I sighed to myself…”
I had been dreading the thought of Hong Kong in June and on arrival my worst fears were realised. The temperature was in the 90s and the humidity must have been very nearly 100 per cent. A slightly perspiring Governor met me at the foot of the steps and delivered me to Britannia which was tied up alongside the old naval base and near to the Prince of Wales building I must have opened in the 1980s. (Goodness only knows what the Chinese will have renamed it by now). As usual, it was wonderful to step into the familiar atmosphere but, this time tinged with an overwhelming sadness at the thought that this was going to be the last time of doing so on an overseas visit.
Every moment seemed precious, to be held as a lifelong memory of what it used to be like and how incredibly well Britain could be represented – and marketed – overseas. Everybody on board felt this and there was a kind of exasperated sadness experienced by all and sundry.
Every important visitor including every foreign minister who came to the reception and the other official representatives who came to the two dinners in HMY were completely bemused by the decision to ex-commission her. “Why is this happening?” asked Madeleine Albright the US secretary of state, after she had had a breakfast meeting with the Foreign Secretary in HMY followed by a press conference on the jetty with HMY in the background. “A wonderful negotiating advantage” mused Robin Cook after I had invited him and his wife to stay the night on board and he had witnessed Miss Albright devouring home-made Danish pastries during their breakfast meeting.
The PM and Mrs Blair came on board for an hour and seemed suitably impressed after their whistle-stop tour round the ship. If only he could have seen the yacht with the receptions and dinners underway and heard people’s reactions … But they are all in such a hurry, so never really learn about everything. In this case he had flown out to Hong Kong for 14 hours, stayed in HK for 14 hours and flown back to the UK for another 14 hours.
They then take decisions based on marketing research or focus groups, or the papers produced by political advisers or civil servants, none of whom will have ever experienced what it is they are taking decisions about.
On the first evening in Hong Kong I went to a reception in Government House for a lot of the local people. It ended with a rather marvellous beating retreat by the Hong Kong police so there were very few dry eyes in the house. This was followed by a dinner in HMY at which I sat next to CH Tung, the man selected by the Chinese to take over from Chris Patten. A businessman with a background in shipping, I found him thoroughly inscrutable but eminently talkative. He was very soothing about everything staying the same after the handover and assured me that the Chinese Government were intent on showing the Taiwanese that all could be well with Hong Kong as part of “one country with two systems” – the aim being to seduce Taiwan back into the motherland.
All the locals were being outwardly, thoroughly optimistic about the immediate future but in the background was the sneaking worry about creeping corruption and the gradual undermining of Hong Kong’s greatest strength – the rule of law. The Chinese Army provides another concern owing to the fact that the soldiers are paid so badly that there may be irresistible temptations to intimidate or threaten local people when the soldiers discover that a glass of beer costs about as much as their weekly salary. Apparently in China itself the Army is heavily involved in pretty corrupt practice, so one can only hope they are confined to barracks in Hong Kong.
On the third day… Back at Britannia I had another lunch – this time for my Institute of Architecture – and then saw the PM for his short visit to HMY when we had a very good talk about a whole variety of subjects. He is a most enjoyable person to talk to – perhaps partly due to his being younger than me! He also gives the impression of listening to what one says, which I find astounding. He understands only too well the identity problem that Britain has with the loss of an empire and an inability to know what to do next. Introspection, cynicism and criticism seem to have become the order of the day and clearly he recognizes the need to find ways of overcoming apathy and loss of self-belief by finding a fresh national direction. I said I thought the best way was to concentrate on all the things we do best as a nation and try to work out how they can be put to best use in a modern context.
The afternoon/early evening saw the start of the farewell ceremony in a stadium next to HMY. The Patten family had come on board at tea time looking incredibly sad and somewhat shattered, having said goodbye to Government House and all their staff. Chris Patten came on board cradling the Union Jack from Govt House which he had been given on departure. …Having tried to soothe their nerves with a cup of tea, we all set off for the stadium where a kind of extravaganza had been arranged – as it turned out, in the rain. And the rain just came down in a light, steady trickle, thoroughly wetting everything and turning the red carpet on the platform where I was sitting into a soggy, squidgy mess. We sat through various acts and performances and listened to Chris Patten’s rather moving speech – which he hadn’t shown to the Chinese. I ended up with a lump in my throat and was then completely finished off by the playing of Elgar’s Nimrod Variations immediately afterwards. During the course of all these proceedings I had a premonition that the heavens would open in a serious fashion just as I got up to speak – sure enough, just as I had thought and as if on cue, the rain came lashing down and I found myself standing at the lectern and trying to make sense of my speech which by now had become a soggy mess of paper pulp and each page stuck together. Never before had I been called upon to make a speech underwater. This was the first occasion. As it transpired, no one could hear anything I said because of the noise of the rain on the umbrellas. The things one thinks one is doing for England!!!
After all this emotion, and being thoroughly soaked to the skin, I rushed back to HMY for a bath before having to go on to the main Convention Centre for the banquet for 4,000 people. Inevitably, the fireworks display started precisely as I lowered myself into the bath and ended as I came down after changing. At the vast banquet I sat next to the Chinese Foreign Minister who must have had considerable difficulty knowing what to make of me. After a lot of toasting we left the dinner and just waited around until we could go through the ridiculous rigmarole of meeting the Chinese President Jiang Zemin, without loss of face on either side.
The Chinese had been arguing the toss over every single detail of the arrangements of the handover and wanted to insist I came into a room to call on the Chinese President. This was adamantly resisted by all the British – so a compromise was found by which we both walked into the room from different ends and met in the middle.
The President and his cronies sat opposite all of us – ie PM, Foreign Secretary, CDS and me – and then read from a prepared statement. I could see I had no escape from replying, so I desperately tried to think what I could say without causing an incident. After a few pleasantries about Shakespeare (the President seems to like the bard’s work) we all trooped off to the main hall of the new convention centre – another day’s march from where we were and absolutely vast.
For the hand over this hall had been transformed into a kind of Great Hall of the People of Peking. After my speech the President detached himself from the group of appalling old waxworks who accompanied him and took his place at the lectern.
He then gave a kind of “propaganda” speech, which was loudly cheered by the bussed in party faithful at the suitable moment in the text. At the end of this awful Soviet-style display we had to watch the Chinese soldiers goose step on to the stage and haul down the Union Jack and raised the Chinese flag. The ultimate horror was the artificial wind which made the flags flutter enticingly. The ceremony ended with us all being photographed in a group, shaking hands and marching off through different doors.
Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the Leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested at once when he tried his demonstration at midnight …Whatever may be thought about colonisation nowadays, Hong Kong was a pretty remarkable example of how to do it well. Thanks to Chris Patten, we left with affection and gratitude ringing in our ears.
We returned to HMY where I followed Chris Patten along a crowd of well-wishers, friends of his and former associates who were lining the jetty, and then we embarked in The Yacht to be met by a gaggle of waiting Patten daughters, all thoroughly overcome by emotion and exhaustion. We steamed slowly down through the harbour, followed by the escort HMS Chatham and accompanied by two fire-fighting tugs spraying their hoses high into the air. I stood on the deck gazing at the departing skyline of Hong Kong and telling myself that perhaps it’s good for the soul to have to say goodbye to that and the dear Yacht in the same year. Perhaps.”
[Click here for a video of HRH Prince Charles’ Handover Speech, 30 June 1997, Hong Kong]