In his Foreword to The Hong Kong Diaries (all citations thereafter refer to Chris Patten’s The Hong Kong Diaries published by Penguin in 2022), Chris Patten begins with a statement that “history is an argument” (p.viii). We cannot agree more in the sense that history has never objectively existed, but rather is subject to multiple interpretations. Chris Patten’s book, The Hong Kong Diaries, does not claim to offer objective facts reported by a man with “first person perspective”. The Diaries is Patten’s personal experience as the last governor in Hong Kong, a period that spanned 1991 to 1997. More precisely, it records his negotiations with Beijing officials on the handover. To be sure, the book is not fiction, it is a diary. However, some readers may find the book boring because they expect to gain some insights on political confrontations or exclusive stories regarding the negotiations between the United Kingdom and China on Hong Kong’s future. Instead, Patten often focuses on aspects of everyday life, his time with his family, puppies, yachting, nightlife, spouses’ classmates, workmates, all are topics which occupy a great deal of space in The Diaries. Readers may feel these personal details are extraneous given the magnitude of the political issues Patten was negotiating regarding Hong Kong’s future. However, the book as a document recording important cultural differences between the United Kingdom and China, it provides us with fascinating insight into a story of cultural conflicts and miscommunications between China and the UK.

Chris Patten’s biographical background

Chris Patten grew up in an Irish Catholic family in West London and was the son of a popular music publisher. After reading Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford and graduating in 1965, Patten joined the Conservative Party the following year. He served as Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1986-1989), Secretary of State for the Environment (1989-1990), and Chairman of the Conservative Party (1990-1992). He was the last British governor of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997.

From a sociological perspective, one’s own cultural group appears to be at the center of everything, and all other cultures can be scaled and rated with reference to it. This inevitable consequence of culture is reflected in the ways British and Chinese contrast sharply in many ways of doing things, and these differences can lead to situations where both sides may seem rather eccentric to the other. Chinese culture tends to be collectivist, and individuals are often subordinate to social groups, such as the family and the state. This view of social relationships is undoubtedly influenced by traditional Confucianism, where individual’s success often relies on family connections, and is far less likely to be attributed to individual effort. Chinese culture also promotes specific forms of modesty and self-depreciation, and restricts radical deviations in social behavior and innovation. After thousands of years of socialization, the Chinese have evolved into a distinct culture. For example, Chinese use mianzi (or ‘face’) culture to cover up pitfalls they may experience in social, economic, and foreign policies. Mianzi (or ‘face’) in the context of Chinese culture, links with notions of honour, dignity, self-worth and prestige that a person feels in social interaction. ‘Face’ is given when a person receives a public compliment or is seated at the head of a banquet table – these are signs of being elevated. ‘Face’ will be lost when a person is openly insulted. It would be devastating in social interactions if Chinese ‘faces’ have been torn off. In other words, the Chinese are extremely annoyed if ‘no face’ is given to them in everyday life. Since the United Kingdom enjoys a strong tradition of democratic equality, the British people do not crave ‘face’ in the same way that it is emphasized in China. As Patten notes:

… I’ve got increasingly cross about references to Chinese ‘face’ (by the older group in particular) and feel that we need to refer ourselves to British ‘face’ from time to time.” (p.17)

From The Diaries, Chris Patten’s speech and mentality typically reflect his home (British) cultural values, including liberal order, justice, freedom, individualism, Christianity, and cultural diversity. On the contrary, Chinese have been brought up and educated with Confucianism, familism, filial piety, patriotism, and absolute monarchism, and the differences between these two cultures are illustrated throughout The Diaries.

Differences in family values

Chinese in Hong Kong are well known for their perseverance and hardworking attitude. After the fall of the Ch’ing Dynasty, many people encountered civil war, foreign invasions, famine, and radical political campaigns such as ‘People’s Commune’ the Great Leap Forward, and ‘self-condemnation’ during the Cultural Revolution. Suffering from starvation and political turmoil, many fled from mainland China to Hong Kong, and in doing so, brought aspects of traditional Chinese culture to Hong Kong. In traditional Chinese culture, men are breadwinners while women stay at home and do household chores. Confucianism requires women to be obedient and subservient to their family and husband. British also value hardworking colleagues but never ignore their family life even though they are in extremely busy at work. They accept the work-life balance to a far greater degree than is found in Chinese culture.

Like a private company director, Patten enjoyed a luxurious life, with helicopter flights, boat yachting, sport and leisure, wine and nightlife. Reflecting these advantages, The Diaries (p.41) note:

We had a lovely supper anchored in Repulse Bay and – a reward for my efforts to stock the wine cellar– we drank a lot of very good Saint-Véran…We sailed back past Aberdeen and its floating restaurants with their glittering lights, and on round the west of Hong Kong island to come back into the main harbour between the mainland and the island itself. I suppose it’s one of the greatest journeys you could take anywhere. I hope I manage to stay for the full five years!

Yet Patten is also very interested in maintaining his family life. The Diaries is full of sentiments and passions for his wife (Lavender) and three daughters (Kate, Laura and Alice). Patten dedicates his book to Lavender. He states that Lavender “gave up her career so that [he] could go to Hong Kong”. Lavender also helped him “hugely in his work as Governor,” and loved Hong Kong as much as he did. Indeed, The Diaries reveals Patten’s deep love for his three daughters, yet grounded in his views of individualism, independence, self-reliance, and venturing. Patten let his three children decide whether they lived in Hong Kong or not (pp.19-20).

Alice is the youngest girl in the family. Patten often looks after her and acts like a babysitter with joy. He wrote, “As well as fulfilling my parental duties looking after Alice, which are a joy, the highlight for me was a birthday dinner which I gave for her along with two of her school friends at a tasty Italian restaurant” (p.59). Patten visited Macao with Alice, and complimented Alice that she was a charming companion. (p.78)

On Kate, Patten wrote, “I flew up to Newcastle to see Kate. She is living in what seems a very jolly hall of residence surrounded by loud and cheerful friends” (p.22). “I took Kate out to a restaurant down on the wharf in the centre of Newcastle, Number 21. We had a terrific meal and she’s really good company.” (p.83). Elsewhere, The Diaries reports that “Kate phoned up this morning to tell us she’s had a car crash near Darlington. Thank heavens she’s fine, but clearly very shaken. We are pretty shaken ourselves.” (p.131). On Laura, Patten said, “her course has started well and she’s enjoyed the first three days, but she’s missing us and had a bit of a cry on the phone” (p.67).

In addition to looking after his family, Patten enjoyed his social life too. Tennis is Patten’s favorite pastime. Patten took part in a charity tennis challenge in front of a large crowd at Victoria Park (p.163). On Christmas Eve, he played some tennis with his friend. He praised his tennis partner as wonderful player who just kept hitting the ball back until eventually his opponent made an error (p.181).

Not only his daughters, Patten cherishes puppies. On one occasion, his family got another puppy (Soda) as Whisky’s companion. Patten happily reports that “Back at Government House, I met Whisky’s companion – called, guess what – Soda. She is a beautiful little ball of fur and is related in some pedigree way to Whisky” (p.64).

Like South Koreans, Chinese regard consuming dog meat as normal. However, in British Hong Kong, the Dogs and Cats Ordinance of 1950 prohibits the slaughter of dogs for use as food. The loss of Soda signifies Sino-British cultural differences in dog domestication. On the disappearance of Soda, Gareth Evans, former Australia’s Foreign Minister, made a joke during a banquet dinner that Chinese ate Soda. One newspapers headline reports, ‘Chinese eat governor’s dog’. Evans later was required to clarify his remarks upon China’s inquiry! (p.80)

Despite being heavily engaged with his public duties, Patten did not neglect his family nor did he refrain from leisure. We wonder how Patten, apart from his Sino-British negotiations, could handle so many miscellaneous family affairs, including Kate’s car accident, the disappearance of his puppy, and his many meetings and social gatherings.

Differences in communication and negotiation strategies

One way The Diaries reveals the impact of culture is its documentation of the differences in negotiating styles. Patten documents how British negotiators often disclose large amounts of information during negotiations, and also often let the rivals know their intentions.

Conversely, Chinese delegates are much more reserved. Plans and intentions are not open to the public and a wide range of facts and ideas are often brought to negotiations. Chinese negotiators often prefer settling disagreements ‘under the table’ with formal negotiations serving as more or less a ‘rubber stamp’ for decisions reached behind the scenes. Unlike British, Chinese prefer hiding their intentions and let their counterparts guess their preferences. For example, Lu Ping, Head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, PRC (hereafter Lu) did not directly denounce Patten’s tough negotiation style. Instead, Lu emphasized how he had maintained strong friendships with Patten’s four predecessors. He implicitly used the skills of ‘China-speak for itself’, warning Patten to “better toe the line just like the [four predecessors]” (p.71). In other words, Lu wanted Patten to soften Patten’s tough negotiation style and cooperated with them.

In another incident, Lu wanted to disgrace Patten but did so in a subtle manner. Lu refused to greet Patten at the airport. However, as practiced in Chinese culture, Lu did not take this insult to an extreme, and apologized to Patten for not being at the airport. Hence, some ‘face’ was preserved for both Patten and Lu.

To reduce communication costs of hidden agendas, Chinese often use a go-between (or a middleperson) to convey messages. For example, in order to break the deadlock in negotiations, China sent Tung Chee-Hwa, who became the first Hong Kong Chief Executive in 1997, to persuade Patten (pp. 87-88) to accept Lu’s secret deal:

When C.H. Tung talked to me privately about having secret negotiations with China on all this, I pointed out that there isn’t much to be said for trying to agree something with Lu Ping which can’t then be delivered by Legco.

There is other evidence in The Diaries illustrating how ‘bargaining below the table’ is often conducted. The Diaries (p.68) reports that Lu sent a private message to Patten, informing Patten that if he respected Lu’s ‘face’ and behaved properly, then Patten would be invited to Beijing, implying that if Patten gave way in the negotiation, Lu could arrange Patten to shake hand with higher ranking senior members of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP).

However, Patten responded by saying that he did not like secret deals or hidden agendas. As Patten notes in The Diaries, in his negotiations he didn’t “have a secret agenda”; instead, he wants “to do the job efficiently and honorably” (p.71). As Patten states, “‘secret deals’ was not the way I did business” (p.75), and his “bottom line for the 1995 elections is that they should be fair, open and accessible to the people of Hong Kong”. Patten concludes The Diaries by noting that the British “stood firm over the talks taking place without a blanket of secrecy” (p.140).

Differences in contractual arrangements

Another interesting example of cultural differences involves how British and Chinese handle contracts. Both Chinese and British take contractual agreements seriously, but the way they honor contracts is different. Frequently, Chinese negotiators prefer sealing the contract verbally. For Chinese, verbal contracts are made on the basis of a shared understanding that “once I make a promise verbally, the deal is ‘legally binding as nine heavy pots’” (a Chinese way of saying). Verbal contracts are preferred to written contracts, and some have suggested this is an artifact of Chinese history when access to stationery was limited. Indeed, one advantage of using verbal contracts in China is that, when compared to written contracts, there is plenty of room to revise deals since verbal agreements are not recorded in real time. The validity of a contract depends on the trustworthiness of both parties.

On the other hand, British operate from a different cultural history where there is far more emphasis on the sanctity of written contracts. Given British confidence in their legal system, it is often assumed that all aspects of a contract should be honored and violations settled in court. The differences in the rule of law and justice system between the UK and China can be seen in Patten’s conversation with Lu Ping. As widely known, British jurisdiction system lies in common law tradition, while in China, people are governed by the rules of the Chinese Communist Party. In one conversation, Patten mentioned the rule of law, and reports that “Lu said, but we have the rule of law too”. Patten replied, “[No,] you have rule by law” (p.72).

Honoring legal systems in Hong Kong before 1997, Patten always believed that British had the final say on the Hong Kong economy before the handover, including issues such as the construction of a new airport and implementation of a new democratic system in the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo). Regarding Hong Kong’s future after 1997, Beijing authorities expected that functional constituencies with limited electorates would be adopted in the LegCo. Patten, growing up in a British legal environment, firmly believed that it was morally right to implement a full democratic system in the LegCo. In particular, Patten extended the definition of functional constituencies and thus virtually every Hongkonger was able to vote for the so-called ‘indirectly-elected’ members of the LegCo.

Patten believed that under the Basic Law, all contracts signed before 1997 should be honored. Regarding Hong Kong’s future, Patten firmly defended British interests and took the chance to show significant resolve on issues relating to Hong Kong affairs before 1997. In reply, Lu Ping gave a press conference which was full of threats including the breaking up of the negotiation if British tried to go ahead on their own (p.61). As Patten wrote,

[Lu] complained that Beijing had not been properly consulted, that he [Lu] and his colleagues were not being given any face, that we [Chinese] were bouncing them with these proposals, that they [British] were out of step with the Basic Law.

Of course, both sides did not want to see the negotiation fail. Lu said that Patten’s insistence upon defending the principle of Chinese sovereignty on Hong Kong harmed the relationship between China and the UK. Lu planned to give Patten a gift (perhaps an agreement on the airport) but due to Patten’s tough attitude, Patten would not receive anything then. In Chinese culture, reciprocity is a virtue. If Patten gave way in the negotiation, British would also get what they wanted in return. However, Lu’s expectation was turned down. Finally, Lu warned Patten not to announce anything at all unless the agreement was first cleared from the Chinese side.

However, British thought differently. Patten alleged that China’s intention did not focus on the legality of contracts, but cared much on confidence in the market, lower morale and investor confidence (p.85). Taking property rights seriously in the contract, Patten defended British rights in Hong Kong all the way before 1997. He wanted China to know that Britain was still fully in power before 1997. Admittedly, any political reform before 1997 was set to influence Hong Kong for many years to come. For this reason, both China and the United Kingdom agreed to extend the “One Country, Two Systems” until 2047. Patten’s democratic reform in the LegCo would affect the future of Hong Kong society. Therefore, the implementation of democratic reform in Hong Kong would annoy China. Patten might not know or realize that Chinese are taught to be loyal and obedient to their leaders.

The Diaries shows that Patten’s relationship with Chinese officials is often less than harmonious, and at times antagonistic. Lu ended up describing Patten as “a sinner for thousand generations to come” (p.86). This is a rather heavy condemnation for Patten, as if the Chinese ‘face’ was ‘torn off’.


The ethnocentric view of culture argues that we evaluate other cultures solely by the values and standards of our own culture. The cultural clashes between Chris Patten and Chinese delegates are revealed in terms of their family values, communication skills, negotiation strategies, and contractual arrangements. Broadly speaking, they reflect cultural differences between the East and West. From this perspective, Patten’s book makes much sense. Therefore, to resolve the ongoing chaotic situation in Hong Kong, understanding differences in cultural values between China and the UK is of utmost importance.

About the Authors

Prof. Tony Yu is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Economics and Finance at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Ms. Diana Kwan is Teaching & Learning Administrator at the Department of Primary Care and Population Health at University College London.