Losing the plot in Hong Kong

Prospect Magazine

Losing the plot in Hong Kong

/ / Leave a comment

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 off

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.

These 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 practised. 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.

The negotiations were long and arduous; Britain had virtually no cards. For the British negotiators, at many times during those sessions it would have been easy to strike a defiant pose and walk out. Such action might have briefly earned some approving headlines in Britain and the US. But to do so when the consequences would have to be met, not by Britain, but by people to whom we stood in a position of trust, would have been indefensible. The longterm welfare of Hong Kong had to be the sole criterion. This reasoning is still valid, although it is usually lost sight of in the press and parliament.

In this spirit of co-operation Britain concluded a number of important agreements with China. They could not have been obtained in any other way. The first was the joint declaration of 1984, which provided the most detailed protection possible in the real world for Hong Kong’s way of life for at least 50 years from 1997. The treaty was universally acclaimed at the time and has been the foundation of Hong Kong’s confidence and prosperity ever since.

Much less well known, but of great importance was the agreement of 1990 on directly elected seats to the Legislative Council (Legco), which provided for the partial democratisation of Hong Kong. It ensured an immediate increase in directly elected seats in Legco with further increases in the future. There would be 18 such seats in 1991, 20 in 1997, 24 in 1999 and 30, that is half the seats, in 2003. The eventual objective was a legislature that was completely composed of directly elected members.

There were other useful agreements resulting from this period of co-operation, for example that on the new airport. But the joint declaration and the agreement on democratisation were the most important. Together they amounted to a constitutional and political settlement which should have carried the colony smoothly through the watershed of 1997 and well into the next century, with stability and a fair level of democracy. The settlement was not all-inclusive: there were loose ends on the electoral arrangements for the 1995 elections to the legislature and the British reserved the right to press China for more directly elected seats in 1995. But there was an understanding that any significant constitutional changes should be agreed between the two sides; and it was accepted that there should be a “through train” for the legislature elected in 1995, namely that it should sit through the handover and become the first legislature for the new Special Administrative Region.

The Chinese accepted the agreements of 1984 and 1990 and wrote them into their Basic Law (their mini-constitution for the Special Administrative Region). This endorsement was critical; it meant they would survive the handover. There was little point, and much danger, in changes which would only last until 1997 and then be dismantled in acrimony with damage to the whole structure. But the Chinese also made it clear that they had gone as far as they could. They stated that they would make no further concessions on democratisation and that British attempts to go further, without Chinese agreement, would provoke serious consequences. We were told, as far back as December 1989, and several times later, that if we tried unilateral action, they would impose their own conflicting arrangements in 1997, that the through train would be derailed and that there would be, as they put it, “big trouble.” These were serious warnings given the strength of Chinese feelings on Hong Kong, their suspicions of British intentions and their power to carry out their threats.

In outline that was the situation until 1992. Inevitably, there were strains, particularly after the Tiananmen killings of June 1989. Those tragic events, condemned by Britain as by other western governments, provoked a mood of emotion and revulsion in which rational public discussion of policy towards China and Hong Kong became difficult. There were, for example, calls in The Times and the Spectator for the government to review, or even denounce, the joint declaration, although quite what this would have achieved, apart from terminal damage to Hong Kong, was never clear. There was much press criticism of the policy of co-operation with China and claims that British negotiators had been too supine in their dealings with Beijing. In particular, it was argued that we must have more democracy in Hong Kong, preferably in agreement with China, but, if need be, in disregard of Chinese wishes. In Hong Kong itself there were similar emotions and in the 1991 elections a new political party emerged under Martin Lee, which saw special merit in a policy of defiance of China.

Tiananmen did increase the difficulties facing British negotiators: it made the Chinese authorities even more resentful, sensitive, and suspicious of British intentions in Hong Kong and fearful of democracy and foreign influence generally. But it did not upset the logic of talking to Beijing if we wanted to help Hong Kong, and it did not, as is sometimes argued, end the policy of broad Sino-British co-operation: the agreement on directly elected seats and the airport agreement both post-dated June 1989, and were important expressions of the co-operation. The crucial change came with the appointment of a new governor, a politician, with new policies, in the summer of 1992.

up to 1992 British policy in Hong Kong had been largely guided by officials. Recommendations by the sinologues in the foreign office and No 10 were usually accepted by ministers. Margaret Thatcher was persuaded to suppress her original more bellicose instincts; and the success of the joint declaration and the manageable nature of Sino-British relations gave credibility to the official course. After 1992, however, politics was in command. Officials were told to stand back; for the last stage of British rule a politician would govern in Hong Kong and ministers themselves would devise and conduct policy. This meant in practice direction by Chris Patten, supported by John Major and followed, at a little distance, by Douglas Hurd.

Patten came new to the area, but he rapidly acquired firm views. His approach reflected the assertive, post-Tiananmen mood in the media and parliament: the view that Britain had been too soft with China and that rapid democratisation in Hong Kong was essential if liberal values were to be protected there after 1997. There were no doubt other considerations. As a rising politician, he had his name to make. A tough rearguard action, without glory, which was all that the colony had in fact to offer, was not an attractive option. He made instant democracy his slogan and proposed changes to Legco constituencies which would have the effect of enfranchising almost all the working population. He hoped the Chinese would agree to these 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. They repeated their warnings of the effect of unilateral action. Several months of angry exchanges ensued, followed by some six months of unsuccessful confidential negotiations. Eventually in June 1994 the Patten reforms were pushed through Legco, with the opposing amendment being defeated by just one vote. Predictably, Beijing replied in August with legislation confirming its intention to terminate the Hong Kong legislature in July 1997.

The resulting confrontation has bedevilled Sino-British dealings over the colony ever since. At the centre is the quarrel over the legislature. It is now plain that the existing legislature, elected under the Patten franchise in 1995, will not survive the hand-over. Its place will be taken, in the first instance, by a provisional legislature chosen by Beijing and, a year later, by an elected body, although the terms of its election are not yet known. After a brief interlude with a more representative assembly, under the Patten rules, democracy in the colony will suffer a severe and lasting setback. Instead of a through train for an elected legislature, as agreed between Britain and China before 1992, there will be, in the first instance at least, a Chinese-appointed body. The Patten policy has proved highly counterproductive in the area where it promised most.

The damage has gone wider. The Chinese have not only derailed the through train; as part of their rejection of British unilateral acts, they claim the right to vet legislation passed without their agreement by the Patten regime. Under this head they intend to repeal laws passed over the last few years in pursuance of the Hong Kong bill of rights and to revert to the earlier, stricter colonial legislation.

On the administrative side, instead of the closer co-operation between the two sides envisaged under the joint declaration for the last years of British rule, there have been, in effect, two rival administrations. The Chinese government, with their group of Hong Kong advisers, have been drawing up detailed plans for the Special Administrative Region with little or no reference to British wishes. For the last six months of British rule there are even two rival legislatures: the existing Legco in Hong Kong and the provisional legislature in Shenzhen over the border.

The governor himself would in more normal circumstances have been in day-to-day touch with Beijing and his successor-designate in Hong Kong as the deadline approached, ironing out wrinkles and ensuring a trouble-free transfer. His successor, soon to be the chief executive of the Special Administrative Region, would probably have served a term as deputy governor. As it is, the governor has long been an untouchable: no Chinese government official has talked to him for the past four and a half years; and he and the chief executive-designate are openly at loggerheads on basic constitutional issues.

In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that Britain has had to be satisfied with worse terms in the many detailed negotiations involved in the transition than would have been the case had the matter been handled more sensibly. The Chinese have felt confirmed in their innate suspicions that the imperialist power would prove unreliable before the day was out. They have been given an opportunity to justify moves towards the tighter control of the territory, which they always wanted, but from which they were held back by Sino-British understandings. In consequence harsher terms have been imposed than should have been the case, or in some cases, issues have been shelved and left for unilateral Chinese decision after the handover. Hong Kong will therefore pass under Chinese rule with less protection than could have been the case. Hong Kong society itself has been polarised, compelled to choose between present and future masters, and mainland political infiltration has been greatly accelerated.

But perhaps the most dangerous general consequence is the weakening in the commitment to the network of Sino-British undertakings on which the colony’s future depends. Unilateral action by the British side has provided a perfect pretext for tinkering by the Chinese. A provisional legislature is not mentioned in the joint declaration. But the Chinese reply is that this is an essential stopgap after British unilateral changes, which were not envisaged in the treaty either.

As time has passed, the government in London has shown some awareness of the damage done to Hong Kong by the dispute and has been ready to pick up some of the broken crockery. Britain, and Hong Kong, have infinitely more to lose than China if the pre-1992 settlement falls apart. Their Chinese counterparts have gone some way to meet them: they have their own interest in an orderly handover and inheritance of a going concern. Over the last two years Sino-British relations have eased in consequence. But such damage limitation has been hampered by the unresolved problem of the legislature and Beijing’s insistence on repealing libertarian leg-islation passed without its consent. The governor himself shows little interest in lowering the temperature or coming to terms with the successor institutions. In this he is increasingly out of touch with local public opinion. He apparently sees his role now as the negative one of denouncing the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties to audiences in Britain and the US. The quarrel could therefore drag on after 1997, with a downward spiral of recriminations, making it much harder for Britain to get back to a sensible relationship with China, or to do anything practical to help Hong Kong.

The initial defence of government policy was that these unhappy consequences would not, in fact, materialise. Now that they have materialised, the explanation is that the costs are worthwhile and that any other course would have been, in the words of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, dishonourable. It is argued, rather desperately, that at least Beijing has been offered a choice, to accept more democracy or not. At least Hong Kong has been given a taste of representative government. Anything else would have been appeasement. Britain has gone down fighting.

These defences do not bear much examination. They put Britain before Hong Kong. The only criterion for policy remains whether it helps protect Hong Kong, not whether it makes us feel good in London. It is undeniable now that there will be less democracy in the colony than there could have been, that the transition is rougher and the terms worse than need have been the case. Whether talk is about honour or competence, Britain has not performed well. Far from giving China a choice, the Patten challenge, in effect publicly daring China to carry out its threats, removed whatever flexibility there was in the situation. Given the precise and repeated Chinese warnings, it was, at best, a wild gamble with the future of over 6m people. As for going down fighting, in a few months Britain will have left the battlefield. Hong Kong citizens on the other hand will stay. They have been encouraged in unreal expectations and are now left to face the consequences of a confrontation they never wanted.

Given the gulf in politics and culture between Britain and China, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland would have been a delicate and emotional transaction in the best of circumstances, demanding extraordinary patience, ingenuity and realism on the part of Britain and Hong Kong. And to expose British errors in no way condones Chinese acts: termination of a representative legislature is bad, whether provoked or unprovoked. But the Chinese attitude was a given in the equation. Their proclivities, capabilities and intentions were well known. It was essential to work within that framework; and for ten years, from 1982 to 1992, Britain did so, with a fair measure of success. The conclusion has to be that in the past five years that skill, or competence, has been lacking; and that repeated misreadings of Chinese intentions and the limits of Chinese tolerance have made an inherently difficult situation much worse.

It is not a comfortable story. And not a story that has appeared much in print. The attitude of the British press has been interesting. From the outset the newspapers gave the new governor vociferous support: “Typhoon Patten” would sweep away the ignoble shifts and compromises of earlier British administrations and put the Chinese in their place. In this new war with Beijing the welfare of Hong Kong took second place. Any critical comment on the progress of the governor’s venture was condemned as unpatriotic and soon became unpublishable. Though the typhoon has now obviously blown off course and left much wreckage in its wake, there is no disposition to admit it. Instead, reporting relies on the reader’s short memory: retaliatory Chinese moves, like the ending of the legislature, are presented as if they came from a clear sky, as spontaneous expressions of Chinese malice, rather than as the consequence of British misjudgements and provocations. The impression is created of China running wild and doing what it likes in disregard of the agreements it has signed. There has been an almost total absence of the objective comment on a major issue that readers are entitled to expect.

Nor has there been much deeper debate in parliament. There have been occasional informed speeches in the Lords, but cross-party support for the governor has held in the Commons. Labour and Liberal members have been even less inclined than their Conservative counterparts to look beyond the simple incantation, “democracy good, governor good, China bad.” The main fear on the Labour benches is probably that the last weeks of British rule could prove turbulent and that a Labour government could be blamed. In any case, there are no votes in Hong Kong.

yet, despite the mismanagement of the transition, the prospects for Hong Kong after 1997 are surprisingly good. The Hong Kong economy should continue to flourish. It is now tied to the booming southern Chinese mainland and largely insulated from Sino-British political tensions. Business confidence is high, and Hong Kong will continue to provide commercial and financial services for the mainland which other Chinese cities, including Shanghai, cannot rival. For their own good reasons, the Chinese government is determined that the transfer should be a success and is in a position to ensure that it is, on the economic side at least. On the political side, in part because of the nature of the new sovereign power, in part because of the quarrel, the atmosphere will be tighter, more constricted. There will be much self-censorship, probably more corruption. The joint declaration is now frayed at the edges; but the Chinese government will want to be seen honouring the declaration and the Basic Law, as they interpret those documents. They will claim to respect the accords they have signed, while rejecting British unilateral additions. In the main they will do so. The agreements achieved under a discarded policy will act as a safety net to limit the harm caused by the successor policy.

Nineteen-ninety-seven will pass, with many Hong Kong-related media programmes and a clutch of deferential books about the last governor. Most will be content with a superficial examination of the policy issue. The Patten episode will be left for future historians to evaluate. Certain questions will suggest themselves. Why did Britain so readily abandon a policy of co-operation with China which had achieved considerable success and greatly strengthened Hong Kong’s position? Was this simply a case of the politicians overruling the professionals and getting it wrong? A populist policy succeeding one of realpolitik? Was it an example of nostalgia in action, an attempted reversion to times when Britain was in a position to impose solutions? Was the failure to read Chinese intentions just another example of that besetting sin of British foreign policy, the incapacity to put ourselves in the shoes of the other side, which has manifested itself in our European as much as our far eastern dilemmas? Whatever the thesis, it will be a fruitful subject for research. 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.

Leave a comment


Percy Cradock

Percy Cradock was British ambassador to China (1978-84) and the prime minister's foreign policy adviser (1984-92). He is the author of Experiences of China (John Murray). 

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia