Last Sunday’s Protest March of an estimated one million people through Hong Kong’s Central District captured headlines all over the world. Tomorrow when the Legislative Council – effectively Hong Kong’s parliament – sits, more demonstrations have been promised. The Federation of Trades Unions has also pledged to strike, an almost unheard of development.
Pundits and journalists have informed an unknowing public that Beijing is breaking the agreements jointly entered into by Britain as the colonial power and China as the power to which Hong Kong would be returned in 1997. But is it? Since this is an action solely by the Hong Kong government (or so we are told by officials), can China really be the party to be blamed? Is China interfering with those agreements? If so, why is Britain as the joint signatory to those agreements not making much more of an international fuss about it? It is a hugely complicated issue. Over the last two days I have been asked for my views by two posters on this Forum. For them and anyone else remotely interested, I will try and explain.
On CNN this morning, there was an interview with a Hong Kong democracy advocate, Nathan Wong. As a student this young man served time in prison for his part in the ‘umbrella’ democracy movement which five years ago brought central Hong Kong almost to a standstill for several months. He came across as eloquent, highly articulate with an excellent command of English and of the preparation of his arguments. He was hugely impressive. Yet he and his colleagues advocating greater democracy in Hong Kong were effectively sold down the river by Britain, and in particular by one man appointed by the UK to oversee the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. At that time in the early 1990s, Nathan Wong was a mere toddler.
As the 1970s came to an end, Britain faced a problem. Its increasingly prosperous colony of Hong Kong was living on borrowed time. On June 30 1997 the country’s 99-year lease on Hong Kong’s New Territories would come to an end. Unlike the 1842 and 1860 treaties which ended the first two Opium Wars and ceded to Britain in perpetuity first Hong Kong Island and then part of the Kowloon Peninsula up to what is now named Boundary Street, the British traders on Hong Kong wanted more land. Under the Second Convention of Peking in 1898, the land known as the New Territories to the north was ceded to Britain on the basis of the 99-year lease. The British government wanted the land in perpetuity but faced strong opposition from the Chinese. Perhaps thinking that 99 years was too far in the future to worry about, the British signed the agreement.
These New Territories and the more than 200 islands that were included in the lease occupy about 92% of Hong Kong’s land. Without them, Hong Kong was no longer viable. With the lease expiring 20 years ahead, Hong Kong’s investment community and developers were starting to become concerned about future investment in the colony. Without some guarantee about the future beyond 1997, investment would grind to a halt.
In 1979, the then Governor of Hong Kong, the highly respected and much-admired Sir Murray Maclehose, made a trip to Beijing to meet with the head of the Communist Party, Deng Xiao ping, newly back in charge after being purged twice. Deng had an agenda. He wanted to totally overhaul China’s economic model as the only way in which the country could be dragged out of perpetual poverty. He could not go to international banks. But around the world there was a huge and wealthy Chinese diaspora who could be wooed to invest in the ‘new’ China. Chinese roots run deep. The nearest and obvious source of major capital were the many recently emerged billionaires in capitalist Hong Kong. At a much lower level, the average man in the street was regularly sending back money to the extended family and home village in China. During the annual Chinese New Year migration, vast numbers of Hong Kong citizens returned to their place of birth to celebrate with family and friends.
Maclehose returned from Beijing with a message from Deng. “Tell Hong Kong’s investors not to worry.” It was not much, but it was enough to start another of Hong Kong’s mini-booms. The assumption was that Deng was fully aware of the 1997 issue and there might be a chance that he would agree to the lease being extended if not renewed. It was a false hope.
Thatcher goes to Beijing
Britain’s Prime Minister started the negotiations on Hong Kong’s future with a visit to Beijing in 1982. Despite the views of her senior civil servants and ambassadors to China past and present, she was full of confidence that she could negotiate a deal for a renewal of the lease. Her advisers knew that Deng Xiao-ping was never going to agree. Like all the older generation of Chinese leaders of the time – and of many Chinese today, the British part in the Opium Wars had started a century and a half of national humiliation. Deng saw the return of Hong Kong as finally putting that to an end.
Thatcher’s visit had an inauspicious beginning. She fell as she ascended the steps up to the Great Hall of the People. This was eagerly seized upon by the Chinese media who saw it as an inauspicious sign for Britain. She then met Deng who, according to her Memoirs, told her, “We can walk in and take back Hong Kong tomorrow if we wished.” Thatcher retorted that this was true, but it would bring about Hong Kong’s collapse. The ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg’ argument!
For some time Thatcher maintained that Britain could hold on to the New Territories even without an agreement. Her advisors informed her that the Chinese did not even need to march into Hong Kong. They could bring the territory to its knees just by turning off the taps on the large pipelines which provided most of Hong Kong’s fresh water. Thatcher was not impressed. She would have a fleet of tankers converted so they could moor off Hong Kong and bring in water that way! And she was serious!
Eventually, after often-acrimonious meetings over two years, an agreement was reached. Called the “Joint Declaration”, under its terms Britain would return the whole of Hong Kong to China in July 1, 1997 and not just the leased New Territories. Thatcher had climbed down. To persuade her, Deng had come up with his “one country, two systems” idea. This would give Hong Kong near total control of its own destiny, other than in defense. The Joint Declaration was a legally binding treaty, registered with the United Nations, to remain in force for 50 years following the handover.
Although few knew – nor really cared much about - what might happen thereafter, the thinking on the UK and Hong Kong side was that as China continued to develop its economy, more freedoms would be introduced, including political freedom. By 2047, therefore, China would have become much more like free-wheeling Hong Kong. Only some believed that China would actually tighten its controls within the mainland.
The terms of the Joint Declaration then had to be fleshed out so that Hong Kong could continue as a legal entity and its rights and freedoms enshrined in a full legal agreement. This was termed the Basic Law. A committee was set up in 1985 and a first draft of the bill published in 1988 for public consultation. The final bill was signed in April 1990. Importantly in view of the current protests, the Hong Kong government had to enact a law prohibiting acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Central People's Government and theft of state secrets.
Before the signing, Hong Kong’s confidence in the one country two systems solution sank to dangerously low levels following the events in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. If that could happen in Beijing, what might happen after 1997 if Hong Kong people wished to protest against its government was the view. The Hong Kong government decided it had to focus attention on several mega-projects to show its confidence in Hong Kong’s future. One was the construction of the new international airport.
Chinese concern that Britain would depart taking all Hong Kong’s financial reserves
Building the airport basically in the sea off Lantau Island was a hugely expensive project estimated in excess of US$20 billion. Some in Beijing were concerned that the Hong Kong government would exhaust its very considerable reserves and leave the post-1997 government with little in the coffers. This was to be a recurrent theme over the next few years. Hong Kong had very substantial foreign exchange reserves. It also had another mega-fund to be used exclusively to defend the value of the Hong Kong dollar which is still linked to the US$ at a fixed exchange rate. To help appease Beijing, Hong Kong agreed to set aside a percentage of all land sales until the handover date in a special Land Fund that would be handed over to the new government.
By June 1997, Hong Kong’s foreign exchange reserves were the fifth largest in the world at US$67.6 billion. The amount in the Land Fund was US$15.3 billion. These were duly handed over to the incoming Hong Kong government by the exiting colonial power. But a serious complicating factor had come to the forefront before then, one that had the conservatives in Beijing continuously concerned that the UK would just pocket the lot and sail off with it in the hold of the Royal Yacht Britannia on July 1 1997.
Hong Kong’s last governor upsets the apple-cart
Their concern centred on the figure of one man. Christopher Patten was a well-known politician in the UK. After several junior posts in the various Thatcher governments, he entered the cabinet as Environment Secretary in 1989. When John Major became Prime Minister the following year, he was promoted to Chairman of the Conservative Party, in that post masterminding the Party’s election campaign in 1992, an election John Major seemed certain to lose. He won, but Patten lost his parliamentary seat. Major offered him a senior government post which he declined. He asked instead to become the last governor of Hong Kong. Major could hardly turn him down, even though traditionally this post had been given to very senior civil servants with extensive foreign experience, including time at the Embassy in Beijing and an ability to speak Mandarin fluently. Patten had almost no such experience whatever.
Hong Kong’s lack of democratic tradition
Patten arrived in a Hong Kong that knew little about democracy. Britain had had many decades to introduce it, but it was something few in Whitehall cared about. And with the vast majority of Hong Kong people being economic refugees from mainland China, making a living and making money was of far greater importance. Successive Hong Kong governments had slowly introduced a degree of democracy at city council and government level. But this was not one-man-one-vote democracy. It was based on professional interest groups and you voted within your particular group. China was happy for this to continue – and even for the franchise to be extended to many more individuals in elections within ten years of the handover. By that stage half of the members of the Legislative Council would be elected members. The objective of both the UK and China was that the limited elections scheduled for 1994 would provide a through-train – so that the same parliament would continue with its mix of appointed and elected representatives well beyond 1997. Once again, as Hong Kong’s major economic boom progressed in the early 1990s, democracy was very much at the back of the minds of the vast majority of the population.
Patten, though, was a committed democrat. He also arrived in Hong Kong with a hidden agenda, one that most assume had not even been approved by his Prime Minister. A clever man although, as he was to show in a subsequent posting as Chairman of the Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation from which he was forced to resign after three years of major errors, his administrative ability was questionable.
He was also a supremely confident man with a profound self-belief. When he arrived in Hong Kong, he threw off the usual trappings of being a governor and got down, literally, to meeting the people. ‘Fat Pang’ became very popular with his unannounced meet-the-people walkabouts. Hong Kongers became convinced he was looking after their interests – a quality far from all previous Governors had shown. Patten needed that public acclaim for what he was about to do, much of it in a totally clandestine way.
Britain and China had agreed that subsequent to the signing of the Basic Law developments in Hong Kong would be carefully monitored by both sides. Neither would take unilateral action and there would always be prior consultation with and agreement from the other. Patten set about breaking this agreement. First he started by giving his backing to the fledgling Democracy Party in Hong Kong. Then, behind closed doors, he began to examine every tiny phrase of the Joint Declaration and the Basic law, both of which had been enshrined in the law of China and Hong Kong. He was looking for every possible loophole that he could find. Given that both governments had been negotiating in a virtually unique international situation, inevitably there were some. Patten grasped at them. He was determined he would then go public, even without prior to discussion with Beijing. His mission? Greater democracy.
When Patten announced the new electoral reforms that he planned to introduce unilaterally, it was not only Beijing that was furious. Prime Minister John Major was far from pleased. As time progressed, it has been alleged that he twice tried to recall Patten and replace him. On both occasions, Patten refused. For Major to have insisted would have led to a worldwide scandal. For a Governor to be withdrawn for trying to extend the franchise would have been met with howls of protest from much of the world’s media. Patten stayed where he was.
The secret filming and resultant book
What particularly angered a lot of people was that Patten’s actions had not been totally secret. Without advance approval from London, he had invited a friend, the television journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, to visit Hong Kong regularly with a film crew. They had access to extremely sensitive meetings, although none seems to have been involved in any official secrets. After Patten made his announcement, Dimbleby’s documentary series was aired on British television and a book published entitled “The Last Governor”. Ironically, Patten had revealed his own duplicity.
China’s anger was palpable. Patten was called “whore of the East” and other obscenities. From that moment, co-operation over the handover ceased. From China’s viewpoint, Patten had totally broken the spirit of the entire decade-long negotiation. What other damage would he do? Hence the fears in Beijing about Hong Kong’s future finances (see above).
Patten’s “fatal miscalculation”
Although the British media were vociferously on Patten’s side and several MPs openly praised him, behind the scenes in Westminster there was considerable fury. Sir Percy Craddock had spent several tours in the British Embassy in Beijing, notably first at the start of the Cultural Revolution when he and his wife were roughed up by Red Guards. He rose to the post of Ambassador, in which role he was Margaret Thatcher’s Chief Advisor during the Joint Declaration and Basic Law negotiations. Craddock was horrified by Patten’s shenanigans. He knew what would happen and he knew the lasting damage this would cause in Hong Kong. In a lengthy article in the April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine titled “Losing the Plot in Hong Kong”, he wrote –
Craddock ends his lengthy and fascinating insight with this sentence –“The picture presented in the press is likely to remain the black-and-white one of democrats in Hong Kong, led by the governor, fighting bravely, if unavailingly, against the communist hordes.
“The real story is more complicated, but of great interest. It is the story of a bad mistake, which has left Hong Kong worse off in terms of protection and democracy than it need have been. It has gone unacknowledged, as government errors tend to do, and has been almost buried under the powerful emotions stirred up by the loss of our last great colonial possession and the inevitable political-cultural clash between Britain and China. But it is there; and to those of enquiring mind it casts light on how policy is made, and overturned, and presented in this country . . .
“[Patten] hoped the Chinese would agree to [his] reforms; if not, he was ready to implement them unilaterally. He presumably calculated that, after initial objections, Beijing would come to acquiesce in the changes and that Chinese warnings were bluff.
“This proved a fatal miscalculation. Not surprisingly, given the background, the Chinese objected strongly to his plans. They saw them as a U-turn in British policy and a breach of the constitutional and political settlement enshrined in the Joint Declaration, the agreement on directly elected seats and the Basic Law. They were particularly incensed by the public nature of his proposals and the refusal of their request for private consultation before he went public.”
China’s anger and reaction“All who look beyond the headlines will wonder why Britain, with its long and rich experience of China, should reserve its biggest mistake for the last act of the play.”
I lived in Hong Kong throughout this entire period. Apart from a handful of senior Hong Kong civil servants, no one knew what he was planning, but I did watch Patten as his vanity came to the fore. I saw him grow in stature. I watched his obvious enjoyment at being at the top of the tree and then later his certainty that what he was doing was in the best interests of Hong Kong people. As Craddock clearly stated, though, it was not. John Major’s decision to accede to his request about being posted to Hong Kong was a huge blot on his period as Prime Minster. Worse, it forced open a door that allowed democracy to enter Hong Kong which had never been envisaged by London and which ensured that the democratic advances promised by both Britain and China would never happen.
The first, the through train, was immediately derailed by China which set up its own Legislative Council to sit from July 1 1997. Open elections still occur as promised but still only for a minority of the seats. Development of the agreed electoral process stalled.
This week’s demonstrations
The second concerns the present demonstrations. Under existing agreements, China has the right to seek the extradition of its own citizens who have committed a crime on the mainland. Similarly Hong Kong has the same right for its citizens who have fled to China. What the Hong Kong government is now proposing is that China shall have the right to seek the extradition of Hong Kong citizens who, in China’s eyes, have broken certain laws relating to the mainland, including those listed above – anyone involved in acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Central People's Government and theft of state secrets. But the new law extends that list of ‘crimes’ whilst ensuring the placement of extensive safeguards. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has stated that Beijing never spoke to her about this new law and she has not spoken to the Chinese government. Few believe this. After all, she was ‘elected’ by a small group of rich and powerful Hong Kong businessmen from a shortlist approved by China.
The now retired Chris Patten and British politicians are publicly calling China’s actions a breach of the previous agreements. Like paper tigers, they say Britain has a commitment to ensure the provisions of these agreements are kept through to 2047. But Britain lost all semblance of moral authority as a result of Patten’s breach of the agreements. What concerns the British government now are trade relations with China. The Hong Kong issue is no longer of any real importance – if only because Britain can do absolutely nothing about it.
As for Hong Kong democrats like Nathan Law, he and some former fellow students formed a new political party and stood for election to the Legislative Council in September 2016. At the age of 23 he became the youngest-ever lawmaker in Hong Kong history. But he and five other young democrats refused to take the formal oath of office. This is enshrined in the Sino-British agreements and so they were effectively breaking the law. All were disqualified as legislators in July 2017.
Sadly for Law and all his supporters, the deck is stacked heavily against them. But it was never going to be much different. Even Patten’s arch-critic Sir Percy Craddock accepted that Britain’s negotiating position in the early 1980s was extremely weak. As he wrote of the situation facing the UK –
“The facts pointed only one way: if we wanted to do our best for Hong Kong, and this had to be the overriding objective, we had to co-operate with China. This did not mean agreeing with everything China proposed; tough negotiation was always necessary and always practiced. But it did mean recognising that any security after 1997 had to be underwritten by the new sovereign power; and that for Hong Kong in its unenviable position it was better to have an agreed settlement rather than confrontation, which could simply leave Beijing a free hand.”
It is important to understand that like the present day UK and USA, Hong Kong society is totally split. There is a very large group of people who are pro greater integration with mainland China. This group vociferously does not seek greater democracy for Hong Kong. But once the democrats saw Patten’s open door, they rushed through it believing that his reforms would actually take place.
A local UK politician with a strong belief in his ability to change the course of history but with no experience of China and negotiating with China, Christopher Patten decided he did not need the advice of the Foreign Office mandarins in London. John Major regretted agreeing to his appointment. It was Hong Kong that suffered as a result, none more so than young Nathan Law and his increasing band of followers. Far from extending the democratic franchise, Patten’s disastrous and petty actions only resulted in a future spread of democracy being consigned to the scrap heap. I am sure Mr. Law will continue his fight. I sincerely hope he will and that he succeeds. Perhaps at some time in the future he will. For the present, I fear that Patten has ensured his mission is all but doomed.