In 1992 Chris Patten abandoned the policy of co-operation with China over Hong Kong established by foreign office officials. Percy Cradock, who negotiated the original 1984 agreement with China, describes the subsequent mistakes which he believes have left Hong Kong's 6m people worse offby Percy Cradock / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Hong kong returns to China this year and most people in Britain remain very hazy about what has been happening. On the day itself there will no doubt be sadness, nostalgia, and understandable worries about the future of the colony’s 6m inhabitants. But there will probably also be a comforting feeling that the British government has done all that it could. True, in the last stretch there has been a quarrel with China and Chris Patten’s reforms have been snuffed out. But then the Chinese would do that, would they not? 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.
The story centres around the change of course which took place in 1992 with the appointment of Chris Patten as governor. But in order to understand that, we have to go back a little and look at the problem confronting the British government in the early 1980s when it was forced to embark on negotiations with Beijing on the Hong Kong issue.
The central fact about Hong Kong was, and is, the lease of the New Territories. The lease, which ends at midnight on 30th June 1997, covers 92 per cent of the land area of Hong Kong, the remaining 8 per cent being unviable on its own. This means there was never any practical possibility of hanging on to parts of the colony after 1997. For those with any doubts, there were the supporting considerations of the colony’s total dependence on the Chinese mainland for food and water, not to mention overwhelming Chinese military superiority. Reversion to China in 1997 was, sadly, unavoidable; the only question was the terms of the reversion. If we refused to come to an agreement with China about the future, the Chinese government could simply wait until the lease fell in, when they would be free to take over without any restraint on their actions. Or of course they might move in at once.