LONDON – On July 1, 17 years ago, I was sailing on Britain’s Royal Yacht away from Hong Kong where, at midnight the previous day, China assumed sovereignty under the terms of an international agreement with the United Kingdom (tabled at the United Nations) known as the Joint Declaration. That agreement guaranteed Hong Kong’s way of life for 50 years under Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “One country, two systems.” The rule of law and the freedoms associated with pluralism – due process and the freedom of speech, assembly, and worship – were to remain the bedrock of Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.
Fast forward to this year. On a date that meant so much to me personally as the colony’s last governor, and much more to the citizens of Hong Kong, I attended a magnificent production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” on the grounds of a country house near Oxford. Beethoven’s only opera, written in 1805 (the year of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz) and rewritten in 1814 (when Napoleon abdicated), is one of the supreme cultural expressions of fundamental human values – freedom and opposition to tyranny – that resonate in every society.
“Fidelio’s” most dramatic moment comes when political prisoners are briefly released from their dungeons. “Oh Heaven! Salvation! Happiness,” they sing. “Oh Freedom! Will you be given us?” As they sang of liberty, the setting sun’s rays dazzled the prisoners and the Oxfordshire audience. Nature underlined the importance of the message.
Much of the history of the two centuries since Beethoven composed his opera has centered on that quest for freedom: the fight against colonial powers, the campaigns for basic human rights, the resistance to modern totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. On the whole, liberty has triumphed. But the struggle is not yet over; it continues on every continent and takes many forms.
Consider the victims of torture from Central America to Côte d’Ivoire to Pakistan; the legal harassment – not least of journalists – in Egypt; the persecution of gays in Russia and Uganda; human trafficking, prevalent even in developed countries; and the abduction of young Christian women in northern Nigeria. In many countries, political dissidents (like the captives in “Fidelio”) are locked up – or worse – in defiance of the clear and open procedures that should ensure the rule of law.
The extent to which concern for human rights should be a consideration in setting foreign policy is a contentious issue in most democracies, which often believe that their own record entitles them to lecture others. Sometimes it does; often it does not. For example, the United States’ own record, at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere, has undermined American politicians’ credibility on this subject.
There is also the question of consistency. One cannot credibly thump the table about human rights in one country, but keep one’s opinions to oneself in another – an all-too-common occurrence when, say, a trade deal might suffer.
A lack of consistency has been one of the European Union’s sins in attempting to establish a value-based foreign policy. The EU sought to build a partnership of economic and political cooperation in the Mediterranean region, for example, in which financial assistance and trade liberalization would be contractually linked to progress in advancing human rights and developing democratic institutions.
This sensible objective was sabotaged by the tendency to overlook what was actually happening in some countries. Many suspect that some EU member states, while insisting on robust human-rights clauses in bilateral agreements with countries known to torture prisoners, secretly aided in the rendition of suspected terrorists to these same countries.
I have no doubt that it is in the national interest of democracies to promote freedom and human rights. Though these values cannot be imposed by force or manufactured like instant coffee, the world is likely to be more peaceful, stable, and prosperous the more that countries treat their own citizens decently.
This is not a prescription for a soggy policy that denies the demands of the real world. But reliance on realpolitik as the guiding light of foreign policy has a pretty shabby track record. Realpolitik brought us the bombing of Cambodia and the mass killings under Pol Pot.
Moreover, “realist” assumptions often turn out to be remarkably implausible. Trade deals often are not secured or sustained by political kowtows. Countries buy what they need and sell what they can at the best price they can get, regardless of whether another country has or has not written a ministerial communiqué. Rather, all relevant policies – from aid to political and security cooperation – should be related to strengthening the institutions and values to which one adheres.
All of this brings me back to July 1 of this year. While I was listening to “Fidelio,” tens of thousands of Hong Kongers (organizers say hundreds of thousands) were demonstrating for liberty. They want a fair and open system for electing their government, and to defend the freedom and rule of law that make Hong Kong so special and successful, a genuinely liberal – in the classical sense – society.
Eventually, Hong Kong’s people will get what they want, despite China’s objections; freedom invariably wins in the end. But China’s rulers would take a giant step forward by recognizing that such aspirations are not a threat to the country’s wellbeing. For now, however, China, a great country and a growing power, is handling its economic affairs with more sophistication and a surer touch than it is addressing its political challenges.
Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.