Copyright The Economist
Feb 11th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
WHEN the registry filled up with smoke, and he realised the building was on fire, Percy Cradock knew it was time to leave. The date was August 22nd 1967. For months, both tension and noise had been gradually increasing. Drums, gongs and loudspeakers blaring revolutionary songs had made earplugs standard issue in the British Mission in Beijing. The diplomatic round had gone on much as normal; but dinner with the Danish charg√© d‚Äôaffaires, amid the gleam of silverware, had also featured scenes outside the window of people being dragged out of buses and beaten in the street. Now mobs of Red Guards were storming the mission as Mr Cradock, then political counsellor, and the rest of the staff retreated. There was only one thing for it. He raised his arms ‚Äúin a generally reassuring way‚Äù and cried, ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre coming out.‚Äù
Some would call it surrender. Mr Cradock knew, on the contrary, that it was the only realistic response. Confrontation would be useless. Besides, having made that concession, he went no further. He was asked by the Guards, as they beat him round his back and shoulders, to cry ‚ÄúLong Live Chairman Mao!‚Äù He refused, ‚Äúand fortunately the demand was not pressed.‚Äù Forced to bow his head in the ritual kowtow, he kept trying to raise it. He was asked afterwards why he could not make just one small gesture of obeisance. He replied, with that opaque courtesy beloved of both Chinese officials and Whitehall mandarins, that it could not be done.
He was a figure who might have been at home in the Middle Kingdom, where professional scholar-officials, with the equivalent of his double starred firsts in English and law from Cambridge, kept the vast realm ticking like clockwork. Like them he was low-key but razor-sharp, happy to let ministers have their say first, but with an impish glint in his eye, or a slow steepling of his fingers, that showed he had instantly grasped the danger, or the absurdity, of a situation.
His regret was that he could not always lead others to grasp it too; that they could not learn to see things from the Chinese point of view. ‚ÄúKnow your enemy‚Äù was his motto, as well as the title of his book about a late stint as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. But for the British governments he served from the 1960s to the 1990s, China was simply unfathomable. Even he‚Äîon his scattered tours of duty in 1962, 1966-69, 1978-84 (as ambassador) and secretly thereafter‚Äîfound the changes baffling. One decade uniformed crowds would be chanting to Mao as the red sun shining in their hearts; the next, ‚Äúlouche young men in T-shirts‚Äù proclaimed Deng Xiaoping‚Äôs drive to open and modernise. In one dispatch, in his literary way, he resorted to Auden to describe the fading of the Cultural Revolution in 1968:
The vases crack, the ladies die,
The Oracles are wrong:
We suck our thumbs or sleep; the show
Is gamey and too long.
Beneath it all, however, he believed China preserved a self-sufficiency, secrecy and superiority that would not change, and had not done since Britain had been dismissed as ‚Äúa handful of stones in the Western Ocean‚Äù.
Giving up Hong Kong
His fascination was first sparked by reading Arthur Waley‚Äôs translations from the Chinese at school. He stayed intrigued after years of meetings with Chinese leaders who smoked, spat or pickled themselves with mao-tai. A Beijing autumn, calm and golden, with persimmons hanging like lanterns in the trees, would enchant him. But the romance of China was soon eclipsed by the struggle to live, as a free-thinking foreigner, within the communist system. China was, he confessed, an addiction with him. But it was also ‚Äúan acquired taste, much of it bitter‚Äù.
The toughest episode‚Äîthough also, in his view, a triumph‚Äîcame in 1983-84, with the talks that arranged the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. Sir Percy, as he now was, eschewed a showdown. Britain ‚Äúhad virtually no cards‚Äù; it was therefore essential to make a deal, while pressing for whatever freedoms could be salvaged. Margaret Thatcher, still fiery from the Falklands war, at first disagreed with him; popular newspapers talked of betrayal. Chris Patten, who became governor of Hong Kong in 1992, pressed democracy a good deal too much for Sir Percy, who knew it would unnecessarily upset the Chinese. He accused him, in Prospect magazine, of a ‚Äúfatal miscalculation‚Äù.
This was uncharacteristic. Sir Percy usually made his points, and got his way, stealthily and quietly. He would steal upstairs, when foreign-policy adviser at Number 10, to watch Wimbledon on television; he would travel incognito to Beijing, once to negotiate the new Hong Kong airport, and would be snapped pacing in the grounds of the Summer Palace, looking much like George Smiley. But he was provoked into open war with Mr Patten by his very hatred of confrontation. Dealing with China and its arcana imperii was a matter for professionals, not politicians. And his method was not surrender, though it might look as though he had put his hands up, or made a cringing kowtow to the Chinese. It was just, as he saw it, a nod in their direction, in a coolly realistic way.
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Copyright The Economist