Britain’s last Hong Kong governor says crackdown ‘heartbreaking’

LONDON — Hong Kong’s last British governor said on Monday that Beijing’s crackdown on civil liberties in the former British colony was “much worse” than he expected.

Chris Patten, who led the last British government in Hong Kong before the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, said it was ‘heartbreaking’ to watch the situation in the city as he launched a new book to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the handover. July 1.

“I thought there was a prospect that (China) would keep its word, and I’m sorry that’s not the case,” he said in London. “I find it extremely difficult. I believe Hong Kong is a big city, I hope it will be a big city again.

But he added that he had no hope. “I will believe things change when some of those who have been in exile for the past few years start wanting to go back to China, to Hong Kong,” he told The Associated Press. “And that’s not happening right now.”

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle that was supposed to preserve for 50 years its civil liberties – including freedom of speech and assembly – not found elsewhere in mainland China.

But Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on the city in recent years. Since authorities introduced a sweeping national security law in 2020, dissident media outlets have been shut down and more than 150 people have been arrested on suspicion of offenses including subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion for intervene in the affairs of the city.

Reflecting on his time in the city and what happened after the Brits left, Patten said “on the whole, Hong Kong stayed pretty much the same” for a decade after the transfer until Xi’s rise to power.

He said “(Chinese President Xi Jinping) and his henchmen” were terrified of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, and that he was surprised and distressed by the extent to which Beijing was ignoring the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty that set the terms for the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.

“I am surprised that Xi Jinping has taken measures that are, I think, so bad for China’s medium and long-term interests, not only in the management of the economy, but also in the management of the soft power of China in the world…which is dissipating very quickly,” Patten said.

Patten called it “ridiculous” how Hong Kong authorities are reportedly planning to introduce new textbooks claiming the city was never a British colony.

He joked that his new book, a collection of his journal entries during his time as governor from 1992 to 1997, shows that “I exist and I am not a figment of my imagination.”

“You can bury scholars, but you can’t bury history,” he said.

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