Let me begin with a confession: Chris Patten has had an important influence on my life, though I doubt he remembers. As a 16-year-old, unsure of where and what degree to study, he offered me some advice.

“I read history,” he told me. “I recommend it. It’s a good degree to do.”

Chris Patten.

Patten was again in Hong Kong earlier this week. He was here to promote his new book, appropriately titled First Confession. I read it in August, having ordered a copy online.

Patten was not here to disturb the waters, as some commentators have suggested. In fact, since leaving in 1997, the last governor has wisely not visited Hong Kong on his own initiative. Every visit has been by invitation, or as part of a book tour.

He has also, characteristically, not been afraid to speak his mind. But only when asked, and only on issues that are already being debated in Hong Kong. His answers are hardly provocative.

See also: Hong Kong leaders will ‘always need to stand up to Beijing’, says city’s last governor Chris Patten

During his short stay he would have heard former Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li call Hong Kong students “losers” unable to compete with their Mainland counterparts.

He would also have heard Junius Ho, the former president of the Law Society and now a pro-establishment legislator representing New Territories West, publicly call for the “extermination” of people who advocate independence, post online comments in support of this, and describe such action as being equivalent to “killing pigs and dogs.”

I use the term “exterminate” rather than “kill without mercy” as was first translated. Ho now says whilst those pro-establishment voices with whom he shared a stage had indeed called for them to be killed, he had not used that term. To exterminate is apparently better.

Junius Ho. Photo: Facebook/Junius Ho.

During these same few days Patten may well have noted how those students who had supposedly advocated separatism by plastering on the student union notice boards at several university campuses a poster that read “Independent Hong Kong” did not actually do anything  more to cause offence. They and the student unions were however still grilled by the press for past antics.

And let’s not forget how this started: with a Mainland student caught on camera tearing down posters as she found the idea offensive. The poor girl was then subjected to hate mail, but also hailed on the Mainland as a “heroine” and “patriot”.

If dealt with from an academic perspective, the central issue is not separatism but freedom of expression. Should a university campus be a “free space” where students are sheltered from positions they may find offensive? And why exactly is a poster stating Hong Kong independence offensive, especially to someone for whom Hong Kong is not home?

Surely the very point of a university education is to develop in students critical skills necessary to think rationally and logically, and to formulate and amend a position. It is therefore central to education that students are challenged, and learn to look constructively on positions and issues that they may find disagreeable or even uncomfortable.

Tertiary education — an education of mature minds — that is merely one-way learning is not learning, as critical faculties are not developed. It is indoctrination.

Patten’s sense of irony would no doubt have been alerted to the example of our university heads’ attempt to depoliticise the situation by taking a political stance in stating that the idea of independence is not only contrary to one-country, two system, which by definition it is; but also that it is illegal — which it is not.

File photo: In-Media.

In fact, to make an idea illegal would be a violation of both the Basic Law and of Hong Kong’s commitments under international law as a ratified member of the ICCPR.

And yet, as Patten no doubt knew but had the good manners not to point out directly, the official response has been consistent and predictable since 2014: to see fault only with one side; and to demonise Hong Kong’s youth.

South China Morning Post editor Yonden Lhatoo’s weekend column of the 9th September was entitled When did Hong Kong’s youth lose their basic humanity?

The reason for this sweeping condemnation of young people was the posting of 12 sheets of paper at one university campus that congratulated Undersecretary for Education Christine Choi Yuk-lin for the loss of her 25-year-old son, who had recently committed suicide.

The message was certainly vile, and was rightly condemned by Chief Executive Carrie Lam as “entirely disrespectful, against the moral values of society and cold-blooded.” However no Hong Kong student body supported the message, let alone claimed responsibility, and yet both directly and by implication Hong Kong youth are blamed.

I chose this example not because I dislike Lhatoo or the SCMP, but because it illustrates a more general point. Similar and worse comments are carried in most of the local pro—establishment press, which has become in effect every print paper other than Apple Daily.

It is also a piece I know caused ire among many teachers and university lecturers, who wrote in en masse with another story to tell, but found the paper unwilling to publish their comments. This lack of diversity of opinion, and the systematic shutting down of opposition voices in traditional media platforms, will be new to Patten, who presided over a genuinely free and flourishing press.

A student sticking anti-independence posters on the campus Democracy Wall. Photo: Facebook screenshot.

Now consider how Patten, as Chancellor of Oxford University, handled the similarly contentious issue of Scottish independence. Patten told reporters at the FCC, “[students] were free to discuss Scottish independence, though I told them why it would not be a good idea.

Central to any institution that respects freedom of speech is Voltaire’s maxim, that I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Can it honestly be said that Hong Kong today is a society that stands by this?

So what advice had our last governor to give? What might our new Chief Executive and her administration do to help heal the divisions that have both radicalised Hong Kong politics and poisoned our communities? Patten’s advice is both straight forward and simple.

Firstly, Patten calls on the opposition in Hong Kong to refocus, to veer away from the tribal politics of localism and focus again on what was in principle agreed on in the Basic Law: greater democracy in Hong Kong.

Second, and more important, was his call for the SAR government to listen to and engage with the opposition. Praising new Chief Executive Carrie Lam as a “good communicator,” he said:

If you want to unite the community, you have to be part of the dialogue about the community’s concerns, which obviously include social issues but also include politics.

This is to engage not with the dishonesty peddled at times by both sides, but with the arguments based on facts. However, just knowing the facts has sadly become a battle in itself — a battle readily at play in the way Patten’s own words were distorted.

Patten made clear that whilst he did not think Hong Kong’s courts were politically pressured in either process of the law or in ruling, he did consider the decision by Justice Minister Rimsky Yuen to act against the advice of his own legal counsel and reopen the case against Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow was political.

Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. File photo: In-Media.

He also called on Beijing not to see the debate about democracy in Hong Kong as an act of subversion. He said Hong Kong people should not be seen as dissidents, and that the city “was not out to cause trouble.”

Now this was how China Daily heard it:

By calling Wong the best thing that has happened to Hong Kong and ever will, he practically accused the city’s judiciary of political prosecution.

Not only is this a non-sequitur, Patten even clearly and repeatedly stated that he continued to believe in the independence of the judiciary. To quote him just once:

I don’t think the judiciary is being politicised. I don’t think the judiciary does whatever the government tells it to do.

And it’s not just the paper no one actually reads that has developed this bad habit. Here is the editors note to a column in the South China Morning Post:

A dignified silence is advised for the last governor of Hong Kong, whose criticism of the decision to jail Occupy activists was seen as an attack on the judiciary and rule of law.

The column by Alex Lo then highlights that other increasingly common problem: a lack of argument. Indeed, in this case an argument is not even bothered with at all, the implication being that none is necessary. It gives the impression to readers that judgement has already been passed, and that the Hong Kong community are in agreement. He writes:

Patten did reiterate that he does not support “Hong Kong independence” but he still managed to excuse the separatists. He implied that they would not have gone down their suicidal path if the central government had given them a chance to run for high government office.

Remove the words “still managed” and the quote would not only be accurate but a perfectly reasonable statement. Here is are two further examples:

 In a speech this week, he advised university heads to talk to their student activists. He said people should pursue democracy but not independence. Such pearls of wisdom!

[Of using the term dissident as] a condescending label Western hypocrites like him habitually put on anyone when they want to justify their meddling in other sovereign states’ domestic affairs.

One example is taken from China Daily and the other from South China Morning Post. Both are vindictive, mean spirited and personal. Neither make an argument.

What Patten has said should not come as a surprise to anyone. His position on the recently concluded legal case against the three student leaders is actually that of the pan-democratic parties, as is his position on the independence posters on student union noticeboards and, before, on the six newly elected pro-democracy lawmakers who were forced to vacate their seats for improperly swearing their oath of office.

It would not surprise me, even with the mainstream media turning the screw, if Patten’s position on all three of these issues were that shared by the majority of Hong Kong people. This is not because Patten has a good feel for how the people think — it is because his position seems to me to be the most obviously reasonable.

Chris Patten. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Twenty years ago Patten’s set an example to a young school boy of how to listen carefully, and to receive questions with consideration and respect, and often too with a touch of humour. When berated, he did not resort to personal abuse. This was an educated man in command of his intellect.

Used to an unquestioning and paternal civil service, and gentlemanly diplomat-governors who usually worked behind the scenes, here was a new style of governor: a man of humble upbringings who did good; and a man of the hustings, who understood that moral if not legal authority lay not with the state but with the people.

And so I took his advice. It proved to be a good decision. But today the real question Hong Kong need to know is not what will Carrie Lam do, but whether she has a choice at all.

Evan Fowler

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a UK-based researcher and writer on HK and China affairs.