By Jonathan Power
The British emissary to Hong Kong who seriously misread the situation got recalled to London by fast clipper and reposted as consul-general to Texas.
Charles Elliot became unstuck because, as Queen Victoria put it, “all we wanted might have been obtained if it had not been for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot. He tried to obtain the lowest terms from the Chinese.”
Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, was also recalled to London. On June 30, 1997, after the union jack was hauled down at midnight and the yellow star of China hauled up, he too sailed away, along with Prince Charles on the royal yacht, Britannia.
Did Patten, who made British policy on Hong Kong and China, seriously misread the bargaining relationship with China, not by settling for the lowest terms, but by demanding too much? Perhaps, said his legion of critics of that time, he totally underestimated the Chinese, endlessly provoking them by pushing through his democracy reforms to the point where it became counterproductive.
Now that power was within China’s grasp China was determined, although they said the opposite, to roll democracy back, dismantle the existing legislature and turn back the clock further than it would have been if Patten had left things as he found them five years before when he took over.
In retrospect, it seems reprehensible that Margaret Thatcher when a prime minister did not bequeath Patten a stronger hand. Although her first instincts were more in the style of Queen Victoria, in the end, she compromised more than she should. In 1982 during a visit to Beijing, she told the Chinese bluntly, “We stick by our treaties.” But she went further than that.
While China had the right to reclaim Hong Kong’s New Territories in 1997 (geographically part of the mainland and leased by Britain in 1898 for only 99 years), China had no claim on Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, the pulse and heart of the territory of Hong Kong. Nevertheless, she was going to hand it all over, lock, stock and barrel.
She had been persuaded of it by her Foreign Office which believed two things: one, that China could not be thwarted- it could turn off the water supply from the mainland for starters and, two, that China was changing rapidly for the better under the liberalizing hand of the Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping and thus it would be short-sighted to make a fuss.
Yet, we now know from later research that Deng Xiaoping never expected the British to capitulate so easily and was prepared to live with a longer and less well-defined transition. If only Mrs Thatcher had continued to be tough, and insisted on some years of delay, at least for Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, which had been ceded to Britain in perpetuity, there would have been more time for Patten’s reforms to take root. (The New Territories which include the mainland area lying largely to the north together with some 230 large and small offshore islands were leased rent-free from China for 99 years from 1898 to 1997.)
This raises a big question which still deserves to be put: why did Britain take so long to get round to introducing democratic practices when it had fully-fledged legislatures in the African, Caribbean and Indian parts of its empire, forty, fifty and even seventy-seven years ago?
Britain seriously undervalued Hong Kong when it acquired this “barren island.” What bitter irony that it has undervalued it again as one of the major chapters in world history came to a close—the rule of Europeans over the peoples of Asia, the Americas and Africa. What a tragic epitaph to the empire.
Still, when the union jack came down many, if not most, believed the chances were good that Patten’s reforms would survive, despite the continuous tirade of negative expletives emanating from some sources in Beijing.
Beijing did formally agree with the British to “one country, two systems.” Under the Basic Law, approved by the National People’s Congress in 1990, only the conduct of Hong Kong’s foreign affairs and defence were to be directed by Beijing. Moreover, China committed itself to the “ultimate” aim of an election of all members by “universal suffrage.”
The leadership in Beijing at that time, under Deng Xiaoping, appeared to know that the price of not winning the trust and confidence of the people of Hong Kong was to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs—75% of the direct foreign investment in China came through or from Hong Kong.
Most Hong Kong citizens believed that the promise of elections in a year’s time would be honoured and, if not fully democratic, be not that far short of it. After all, the number one Chinese foreign policy goal was and is reunification with Taiwan, now very much a democracy. Any chance of that happening would be thrown to the wind if the incorporation of Hong Kong misfired. China was not about to shoot itself in the foot, so it was said.
How wrong we were. China has stripped veil by veil to reveal its true intentions, both toward Hong Kong and Taiwan. Whereas, before President Xi Jinping came to power, there seemed to be a live and let-be attitude to Taiwan, now China is seemingly threatening a military take-over. In Hong Kong with the carefully orchestrated “election” of a new chief executive two months ago and the visit of Xi on June 30, it has made it clear that there will be no evolution to democracy in the way the West understands democracy. Henceforth, the majority of lawmakers are to be picked by government allies.
It has to be said that recent protests that turned violent did democracy cause a lot of harm. It gave the authorities the excuse to clamp down and change the rules. Until then the so-called “Umbrella Movement”, when the demonstrators carried yellow umbrellas, had the authorities on the back foot. If opponents of present Chinese policies could find their way back to non-violence, then the present-day mood of defeat could be ameliorated. The goal now, for the time being, at any rate, has to be a more modest one- to stop Hong Kong from slipping so far backwards that it is just an outpost of the government in Beijing.
Many wealthy Hong Kongers, investors (including foreign ones) and the cream of students are now emulating Charles Elliot and Chris Patten and sailing away. They shouldn’t. They are born and bred in Hong Kong. They are needed at home to stem the tide of sinofication.
There are many ways to influence the government besides demonstrations. Non-violence has many facets. Hong Kongers still have more liberties than their counterparts in China. Quiet persistence may yet save most of the Hong Kong way of life—in the law, in culture, in high standards of health care, in lack of corruption, in books that can be read, and in what can be taught and researched in the schools and universities.
After all, thanks to British negligence for over 150 or so years, they have never known democracy. It would have been a surprise if China had let the British adopt it now. Hong Kongers have to make the best of it. Confrontation will get them nowhere. Moreover, a more subtle opposition will probably buy time for Taiwan.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com [IDN-InDepthNews — 12 July 2022]