The Battle for Hong Kong

A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong

by Frank Welsh
Kodansha, 624 pp., $32.50


Hong Kong—The first weekend of the Year of the Dog, February 11–13, was not a good one for those of us who live in Hong Kong. The annual fireworks display, sponsored by the Bank of China (in Peking fireworks are banned), was muffled in mist. In Shanghai for his winter break, Deng Xiaoping appeared in public for the first time in a year; television viewers here and in China could see that the doddering, glazed, mumbling eightynine-year-old propped up on each side by one of his daughters was plainly not far from “seeing Marx”—a prospect which increases uncertainty in Hong Kong about the future.

Also over that weekend, the Communist press here disclosed that China’s ambassador to Britain, Ma Yuzhen, had just written a letter to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which had finished taking evidence for their investigation of the current state of Anglo-Chinese relations. In it, he accused the British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, and other British officials of misleading the British and Hong Kong publics. They did so, he charged, when they claimed that Peking would not carry out its threat to get rid of the entire administrative apparatus of Hong Kong if Mr. Patten insists that the Hong Kong Parliament pass his proposals.

The proposals include allowing many more of Hong Kong’s six million citizens to vote for members of the local parliament, or Legislative Council, whose members are now largely appointed by the British. (Indeed, only eighteen of sixty council members are now elected by only a few hundred thousand out of the six million Hong Kong residents.) For his proposals Peking has called Patten a serpent, a deceiver, and a whore. Ambassador Ma minced no words:

In the absence of an agreement between China and Britain, China will definitely disband and reestablish Hong Kong’s three-tier councils [the local and “national” bodies which govern the city] on July 1, 1997. Politically, China will resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong and Britain’s executive power will terminate on June 30, 1997, together with the end of British-Hong Kong authorities’ institutions.1

Ambassador Ma’s declaration was pronounced “a bombshell” and “political dynamite” by MPs on the committee.

But it was not a new bombshell, rather another segment in a long sputtering fuse. In 1982 Deng Xiaoping warned Mrs. Thatcher in Peking that if Britain did not meet China’s demands for, in principle, absolute power over Hong Kong’s residents, Peking would intervene—he did not specify how—unilaterally. Throughout 1993, as the row between London and Peking over the colony heated up, this threat was recalled and amplified with Chinese threats to break all contracts pertaining to British business that would continue after 1997, and to delay construction of the new airport, the new container port, and much else. British businessmen were warned—and here too Ambassador Ma had much to say—that their future in China was not bright.

The other controlled explosion over the weekend was detonated by Mr. Patten’s opponent, Sir Percy Cradock, now retired, but once ambassador in Peking and then foreign policy adviser and intelligence coordinator to Prime Ministers Thatcher and Major. Sir Percy directed the negotiations between 1982 and 1984 over the transfer of sovereignty, which established that after 1997 Hong Kong would be a Special Economic Region “with a high degree of autonomy” in accordance with Deng Xiaoping’s formulation “One Country, Two Systems.”

Like many British and Chinese businessmen in Hong Kong, Sir Percy is disgusted with Mr. Patten, charging him with violating agreements that depended upon Britain’s recognition that China held all the key negotiating cards; Sir Percy maintains that in 1983 and 1984 he and his Foreign Office colleagues had obtained, as if by “pulling teeth,” the promise of a measure of autonomy for post-1997 Hong Kong, which Peking yielded only on the understanding that the agreements would be adhered to meticulously.

On February 12 Sir Percy revealed that he had gone secretly to Peking in 1989 to reestablish some sort of contact since the Tiananmen killings, which had aroused huge demonstrations of sympathy in Hong Kong, enraging Peking. He was there told by China’s leaders that “if we acted unilaterally”—to try to increase the degree of democratically elected government in Hong Kong—“they would impose their own conflicting arrangements in 1997…and there would be big trouble.”2

To me among others, Sir Percy has repeatedly made it plain, especially just after Tiananmen, that the Chinese government is made up of thugs who mean what they say. “They have always had a veto,” he says. As for Mr. Patten’s proposals to confront Peking with his demands for protecting the rights of Hong Kong citizens, “Heroics are fine when you face the consequences yourself. But heroics at someone else’s expense, particularly someone to whom you stand in a position of trust, is another matter.” The governor must explain, Sir Percy warned, “why Hong Kong need not worry about the Chinese backlash…. Why…it is right for the six million people in his care, not just right for him.”


Hong Kong has always stirred mixed feelings in Britain. “Albert is so much amused at my having got the island of Hong Kong, and we think Victoria ought to be called Princess of Hong Kong in addition to Princess Royal,” Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, in April 1841. Actually, the Queen was “vexed,” as she put it in the same letter, at the nearly accidental acquisition of Hong Kong. She had been told by Lord Palmerston that the place was of little value. Palmerston scolded Captain Charles Elliot, for whom there is no statue in Hong Kong, although it was he who forced the Chinese to hand the place over:

You have obtained the Cession of Hong Kong, a barren island with hardly a house on it…. Now it seems obvious that Hong Kong will not be a Mart of Trade…

The entire history of Hong Kong, as Frank Welsh shows in his magnificent, much needed, and compendious history of the colony, is filled with misunderstandings and cultural collisions. One hundred and fifty years of muddle and injured pride are what permits Peking’s leaders to call Chris Patten, whom they perceive as the point-man for an international conspiracy to overthrow the entire Communist system in China, “a whore.”

Welsh, a former Hong Kong banker, starts his dense but wittily written history in the early nineteenth century, and just manages to include the accession of Mr. Patten in 1992. He refers to Hong Kong as “that natural child of Victorian Britain and Ch’ing China…a source of embarrassment and annoyance to its progenitors since it first appeared on the international scene in 1842.” More than an annoyance: for the Chinese, Hong Kong has been a perpetual symbol of national humiliation. There are many instances of mutual disregard, which Welsh understandably enjoys and quotes copiously. In 1831, James Matheson, one of the founders of the “noble house” of Jardine Matheson, the trading firm whose history parallels Hong Kong’s, petitioned the British government to acquire “an insular possession near the coast of China…beyond the reach of future despotism and oppression.” Matheson, who did not have Hong Kong specifically in mind, thought of British merchants as “princes of the earth,” and despised the Chinese,

a people characterized by a marvellous degree of imbecility, avarice, conceit and obstinacy… [in] possession of a vast portion of the most desirable parts of the earth.”

Chinese officials were no less culture-bound: Commissioner Lin Zexu, the emperor’s man in Canton, confronted the British just before the 1839–1840 Opium War by burning 2,613,879 pounds of British opium, “surely the largest drug haul ever collected,” says Welsh. The British had been smuggling opium into China, hoping to balance off the large amounts of money they were spending for tea and other products exported home to Britain. Lin Zexu advised punishing the British traders by withholding exports to them of rhubarb and tea, without which they could not exist. Because “their legs were too tightly bound to permit them to box or wrestle,” British soldiers, he said, were not suited to fighting on shore. Unfortunately for the Chinese, their confiscation of opium was followed by attacks by British gunboats on their port cities. They were forced to open Shanghai and other coastal cities to the British and cede Hong Kong to them.

Welsh thinks the Opium War was not really about opium, but about how Chinese law was to be applied to foreigners. How law is to be applied, in Hong Kong, still bedevils the Anglo-Chinese relationship, and Welsh points out that it was the tragedy of Captain Elliot and Commissioner Lin that while they both hated opium—even Palmerston was not opposed to banning its export into China—the collision occurred over the manhandling of British subjects by the Chinese officials who were impounding the British opium supplies. Welsh quotes the judgment of John King Fairbank of Harvard that it is only guilt-ridden Westerners and Marxists who lay the blame on opium itself. But elsewhere, in The Cambridge History of China, Fairbank noted that the Chinese dynasty was trying to “stop an evil”—the opium trade—which he memorably described as “the most long-continued and systematic international crime of modern times….”

And in 1840, The Times of London, quoted by Welsh, said, to its credit, that “these overbearing pretences, by which we would summarily justify our interference” made it possible to regard the Chinese as “mere instruments for the production of tea and crockery, and to cannonade them if they began to slacken in their work.”

Not until Chris Patten was appointed governor in 1992 did Hong Kong become a high British priority. (Indeed, despite its long history of reporting from Asia, only last year did The Times open a Hong Kong bureau.) While publicly demanding that the garrison lay down their lives for it, says Welsh, Churchill privately considered the colony not worth defending against the Japanese. During World War II, the Foreign Office regarded Hong Kong as “something of a thorn in the side”—a view some of its diplomats still hold—and wanted to return it to China; the Americans wanted this too. In 1946, the first postwar governor, Sir Mark Young, drafted a plan for a “Municipal council constituted on a fully representative basis,” but this was consistently turned down. Later, the colonial secretary, Oliver Lyttelton, commented, “The electorate of Britain didn’t care a brass farthing about Hong Kong.” Welsh says this remains true, but he also reminds us that, in 1992, Chris Patten was proposing a more democratically elected Legislative Council not for the British voters but for the people of Hong Kong. As Welsh suggests, in 1946 China would have been in no position to object. But Hong Kong has since become more valuable than anyone could have dreamed in 1946.

Welsh manages to be both succinct and vivid in giving an impression of Hong Kong today. He observes that Hong Kong’s life-expectancy statistics are better than Britain’s, and its percapita gross domestic product is greater. More interestingly he compares Hong Kong to another colony, Puerto Rico, which has four million people, rather than six, and has been under American control since 1898, the same year that much of Hong Kong became a colony. Infant mortality and life expectancy figures are far better in Hong Kong, while the crime rate is lower, the rates of literacy higher, and the quality of public transport superior. Hong Kong is much safer and cleaner than New York, but culturally it is a comparative desert, with few bookshops and movie houses, and only amateur theater.

Little evidence of its colonial past remains in the architecture of the famous skyline, Welsh observes, and where Queen Victoria’s statue once stood, “the only memorial is now—entirely appropriate for this temple of commerce—that of a bank manager.” New towns, housing over two million people, stand where once squatter settlements spread, linked by “the sparklingly clean and efficient Metro and the modernized railway.” He points out that notwithstanding Hong Kong’s modern skyline, “at street level…the crowds are as Chinese as those of Canton and Shanghai.” Welsh might have supplied other banal statistics—which are true enough—such as that there are more Rolls Royces per capita in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world, and that one can see the latest Rolls model draw up in front of a backstreet temple so that the owner, dressed in a suit tailored in Rome, can clamber out to burn incense for good fortune.

Near where I live I pass an Armani boutique and not far from it dimly lit stalls where you can get an umbrella repaired and a pot re-tinned. Topless bars and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra are sold out on the same night. There is growing antiforeign sentiment: Chinese civil servants demand an end to favorable contracts for their expatriate, non-Chinese-speaking colleagues, who can send their children free to boarding school in Britain; they call for more Chinese at the top of the bureaucracy (although nowadays, when the governor is away, his deputy, the chief secretary, for the first time in history, is both a Chinese and a woman). Many of the top officials, the police commissioner, and most of the governor’s cabinet, the executive council, are Chinese. One often hears it said, however, that if China were not about to take the place over, very few Chinese would have risen to these heights.

What may protect Hong Kong best from China’s wrath is not its uniqueness but its intricate connections with the economy just over the border. Millions of Hong Kong people each year board what is essentially a subway and without stopping at the frontier arrive in China an hour later. Twenty billion dollars are invested each way. Hong Kong businessmen employ nearly three million workers inside China, and over one third of the colony’s currency is in common use there. Guangdong townships invest in some of the choicest properties in Hong Kong’s central financial district, and last year one of Deng Xiaoping’s sons, wearing a purple and pink corsage like his fellow guests of honor, presided over a new property deal in Hong Kong involving local and mainland entrepreneurs.

But Welsh is right to point out a great truth, whose significance lies behind Peking’s current rage: while the colony was for too long run on authoritarian lines, he says, “there is no society in Asia that has enjoyed for so long as Hong Kong the freedom that democracy is commonly supposed to guarantee.” And if most of its residents still cannot vote to elect their own government, they have forty-five daily papers and six hundred magazines to read—perhaps more than any other comparable city in the world—as well as liberty to assemble, travel, and say what they want.

What worries many democrats here, however, is the ordinances already on the statute books—but hardly ever enforced—that regulate the press, broadcasting, and films. Peking could invoke them, although its own Basic Law for Hong Kong—which will come into force in 1997—guarantees freedom of expression. But what alarms many here, especially journalists, is the Basic Law’s Article 23, which prohibits treason, sedition, subversion, and theft of state secrets, and Article 18, empowering China, not the Hong Kong government, to declare a state of emergency in the event of threats to Hong Kong’s security after China takes back Hong Kong in 1997.

Although the Anglo-Chinese 1984 Agreement promises that the Special Autonomous Region is to enjoy “a high degree of autonomy,” the city will change. Many people here think so; they have been leaving at the rate of over sixty thousand annually since 1989, although last year, one of great strain between London and Peking, the rate fell by 10 percent. They move out to the US, Canada, and Australia—wherever they can gain admission and find large numbers of Chinese.

The Tiananmen killings of 1989 lie behind this migration. They reminded Hong Kong’s almost six million residents of what could happen to them in 1997: a former colony will not become independent, but is to be re-absorbed into the last powerful Communist country, from which at least two million are refugees. How will they be treated when the Chinese take power?

Suddenly many Hong Kong Chinese felt that simply being Chinese was not everything—they had become political, although for years the British, and many Chinese tycoons, had maintained that they were concerned only with money and possessions. Having gone into the streets in hundreds of thousands in June 1989, for which Peking still has not forgiven them, Hong Kong residents further showed their interest in politics and their suspicion of Peking in 1991, when they voted in the elections for the Legislative Council. When they were allowed to elect only eighteen council members—all of the rest were appointed by the government or other bodies—all of the eighteen went to liberals, and twelve of these were won by the United Democrats, led by Martin Lee, one of Hong Kong’s richest barristers and a devout Catholic, whose leading role in the 1989 demonstrations has made him ever since, in the eyes of Peking, a “subversive” and “black hand.”

China could start to play its own political game. It began appointing “Hong Kong Advisors,” including two of the richest tycoons, Li Kashing and Sir S.Y. Chung, a bitterly anti-Patten member of the Hong Kong executive council, Rita Fan, and the only non-Chinese—the ex–chief secretary, Sir David Akers-Jones. Now there are almost four hundred of them, many invited to Peking and presented with certificates attesting to their patriotism and loyalty to China. They function more or less openly as “the second stove,” a quasi-government chosen by China as an alternative to the Legislative Council, which the Chinese regard as a tool of the colonial administration.

It is not difficult to understand why people here accept appointments to such Peking-controlled “advisory” groups. They have the same attitudes as the local millionaires who invest in China and pose shaking hands with Peking’s top leaders, but arrange that after they die their bodies will be buried some place abroad, where they will rest undisturbed in case new-style Red Guards begin desecrating graves.

Such cautiousness has become ingrained in the Hong Kong Chinese since 1949. It explains why so many people here establish legal residences in Vancouver or Melbourne, and then return to Hong Kong to carry on normally as long as possible. Or why newspaper editors and TV producers practice self-censorship so that the local representatives of Peking won’t ring up to inquire why they reported the latest riots in Lhasa or screened the BBC film providing details on Mao’s sex life.


The situation of Hong Kong changed abruptly with the appointment in April 1992 of Chris Patten as Hong Kong’s last governor, succeeding Sir David Wilson, who had displeased Prime Minister John Major. Patten had been a top Conservative politician, cabinet minister, Major’s election campaign chairman, and a possible future prime minister; his appointment was widely resented here as consolation prize from the Prime Minister to a crony who had directed the Tory winning campaign but lost his own seat. (In her memoirs Mrs. Thatcher pays him back for his support of John Major by calling him “a man of the Left.”3 )

Mr. Patten had other unusual characteristics. He is not a Foreign Office Chinese-speaking mandarin like his immediate predecessors; he distrusts them as a class, although more than a few high British officials, including Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, support and advise him, and he rolls his eyes at the mention of Sir Percy Cradock. He set out to stretch past agreements with Peking to the limit by finding a somewhat indirect way to raise the number of Hong Kong residents eligible to vote for the Legislative Council from a few hundred thousand to 2.7 million, or “virtually every working person in Hong Kong.” This was not going to be a gentle coast to 1997, as Sir Percy had planned.

On October 7, 1992, Mr. Patten addressed LegCo, outlining his constitutional reforms, based on “unriggable” elections, to secure a degree of democracy which he often describes as “modest,” or even as so “emaciated” it would embarrass a genuinely democratic society.

What Mr. Patten proposed, and what has enraged Peking, is widening the franchise for the Legislative Council elections. He wants to do this not by increasing the number of directly elected seats—that would violate past Anglo-Chinese agreements—but by increasing enormously the number of voters for the “functional constituencies,” which represent various professions such as medical workers and up to now have been able to elect LegCo members with a tiny number of voters, and by establishing a new election committee, also directly elected, which can itself elect ten LegCo members. He also proposed lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, the only part of his plan to which Peking eventually said it would agree.

China’s response to Mr. Patten’s plan was ideologically revealing. Lu Ping, head of the Hong Kong and Macao Office which is immediately responsible for these matters, said that the governor envisaged all workers voting. In the textile constituency, Mr. Lu speculated that “it might be quite possible for somebody who is an ordinary worker to be elected.” He said he had asked Governor Patten: “Do you think a cleaner, an ordinary worker in the textile industry can represent the interests of the textile industry.” Lu Ping’s own answer to the question, he said, was, “I don’t think so.” Peking maintains that Patten’s plan violates agreements, concluded secretly in 1991, limiting the number of directly elected LegCo members. Mr. Patten conceded that he did not know about these secret agreements when he conceived his own plan and gave his speech in favor of it, although he says his advisers knew. It is pretty certain his advisers did not pass this on to the new governor.

Peking and Sir Percy Cradock see Patten’s reforms, not without reason, as breaking the spirit, if not also the letter, of earlier agreements. Both the Chinese and Sir Percy point to the agreement that the number of directly elected seats would grow slowly after 1999. What was the hurry, except for wicked reasons, which China believes to be many?

Mr. Patten immediately threw himself into a British-style political campaign, holding many “town meetings” and shaking hundreds of hands to sell himself and his plan to the people of Hong Kong, who had liked and respected their past three governors but rarely got hugged by them. The idea was to impress everyone that the British government was no longer the groveling guilt-stricken colonial master but would stand up to Peking and leave Hong Kong with honor.

For Peking, it is clear, Patten was a walking nightmare, stirring up ethnic Chinese in the streets of a city supposed to fall peacefully into China’s hands in 1997. Britain had decided to maintain an enduring influence on Hong Kong, the Chinese charged, and it was doing so as part of an international conspiracy to use the place to launch attempts to overthrow China, with Chris Patten as one of the point men. Peking’s personal abuse reached levels unheard since the Cultural Revolution; in addition to being a whore, Patten was labeled a serpent, a buddha, and a deceiver.

There could be no negotiations, Peking insisted, until the entire Patten plan was withdrawn. But talks did begin eventually, in March 1993, and although they were intended to be secret, both sides soon began leaking information copiously, each intending to show the other to be negotiating in bad faith. Eventually, after seventeen sessions over the past year, all of them in Peking, punctuated by rumors of a deal, the negotiations fizzled out. Near the end of 1993 they were still formally terminated. Privately, the British side concedes it had abandoned hope months earlier, but had persevered for what are called “presentational purposes,” that is, to show Hong Kong that the British had really tried. China probably kept up the game for much the same reason.

One surprising aspect of all this was the behavior of the stock market, indicated by the famous Hang Seng index. This used to plunge when Peking frowned. Since Chris Patten’s arrival, it has continued to be buoyant, sometimes spectacularly so. Western investors appear not to care about the political drama, while local ones apparently think the economies of south China and Hong Kong are so closely bound that Peking neither will nor can wreck the city. This may account as well for the slightly falling emigration rate, and the return of more than a few emigrants once they established residence abroad. The real prospect, it appears, is unclear because China’s political and economic path is now so uncertain. No one can predict the shape of a post-Deng government.

Recent polls in Hong Kong reveal much personal affection for Mr. Patten and support for his proposals, but both are dwindling somewhat; China is seen as frightening. Polls show, too, that many people here would leave Hong Kong if they could afford it and had a visa for a reasonable next stop, but young people polled at the new year did not place the Sino-British dispute in the top ten news stories.

There continue to be bursts of political activity, like those fueled by anger in August 1993, when Peking revoked the passport of the dissident trade union activist Han Dongfang, who, after a period in prison following Tiananmen, was permitted to visit the US for a year but was promptly deported from China after he attempted to return to it. “No Chinese should be expelled from his own country” was a common observation here, and ordinary people in singlets and shorts, too poor to flee to Vancouver, put up posters about Han and gathered signatures at the Star Ferry terminals where Peking’s agents could photograph them.

The contest between Peking and liberals here is over the control of one of the richest, most energetic, most traditional, and most modern cities anywhere. “One country, two systems” originally meant that Peking would permit Hong Kong to continue to make money and remain apolitical. Little attention was paid to guarantees of a free press or legislature, because hitherto there had been little pressure for democracy. Tiananmen changed that. Demands began for some sort of protection, some guarantees, if limited, against Dengism in its non-economic sense.

Peking’s position, since Deng laid it down to Mrs. Thatcher in 1982, is that Hong Kong belongs to China. China believes only China can determine how much or little democracy Hong Kong will enjoy and at what pace. If there is what Deng called “disorder”—which in China’s view can be verbal, as in the debate over the Patten reforms, China claims the right to intervene at any time.

This does not mean that the People’s Liberation Army will march down Nathan Road, or even raise the much discussed but doubtful possibility that China will turn off the water supply and parch Hong Kong into quick submission. Not too subtly, however, tycoons, civil servants, academics, trade unions, the press, and even the criminal gangs have all been told how to display their “loyalty and patriotism” during the years between 1994 and 1997. They are all assured by Chinese spokesmen of “bright futures” if they comply, and warned, literally, “We are watching you,” if they dissent. Not long ago Peking officials here, in an exercise in predictable futility, approached the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and told its board that if they showed a recent BBC documentary film, in which seventy seconds out of sixty minutes are devoted to the elderly Mao’s sexual antics with teen-age girls, it would hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. More menacingly, but what was called a coincidence, for the first time in the history of film performances at the journalists’ club, the Hong Kong authorities, probably nervous about Peking’s reaction, insisted it obtain a license before showing the film. (The club did not comply with either request, and showed the film.)

But there is another matter which shakes confidence here. Is Britain once again going to reveal itself as the traditional “two-headed snake,” which promises one thing and does another? Chinese who want more democracy but fear being defenseless against China are asking whether the entire exercise since the arrival of Patten has been a shadow play. Is the policy really to preserve as much liberty as possible in Hong Kong during its final moments, even at the risk of enraging China, which faces many damaging internal convulsions of its own but remains dangerous to the smaller countries on its borders? Or is it to seem to have struggled hard, as in the 1982–1984 negotiations, knowing all the while that power, implacably and unstintingly wielded, cannot be resisted?

As of early March this remains unclear. On February 23, LegCo voted overwhelmingly in favor of the first part of Mr. Patten’s bill for somewhat wider democracy. Patten’s government had lobbied hard for its success and its officials did not conceal their pleasure at the results of their genteel arm-twisting. The next day Mr. Patten further challenged Peking by announcing that on February 25 the Council would receive the second part of his bill, which contains the major sections calling for a greater franchise in the 1994 and 1995 elections. On the same day the British government published a White Paper giving its side of the seventeen negotiating sessions with the Chinese.

During the debate and before the final vote on the first part of Mr. Patten’s bill, Hong Kong’s customary mask of civility slipped slightly. Although it defied Peking’s threats of retribution by voting for some of the Patten plan, LegCo fully revealed itself as a stage on which Hong Kong’s uncertainties and passions were being acted out. During the eight-hour debate on the bill the word “racist” was used twice; one LegCo member called himself “a Chinese running dog, which is better than being a British one”; another accused Britain of having “invaded Hong Kong”; a third accused a political enemy of being “like a bat which lives in the dark and hangs upside down”; and one of Hong Kong’s most vigorous young feminists shouted so long and so loudly at Hong Kong’s oldest and most respected woman legislator that her elderly target described herself as having been “tongue-lashed.”

The legislation stipulated a lower voting age, provided for local councils being wholly elected, defined how the local government and LegCo elections will work, and gave Hong Kong citizens who also sit in China’s National People’s Congress the right to run for office.

Just before the debate, speaking on television from London, Sir Percy Cradock warned that because Mr. Patten has antagonized China, “Hong Kong is now entering an ice age” and after the vote he declared that “LegCo has now signed its own death warrant.”

In the 1995 election, if it is conducted according to the 1992 Patten plan, 2.7 million people will vote, either directly or indirectly, for almost half the sixty LegCo seats. While some of Mr. Patten’s supporters believe LegCo will vote for most of his package, other LegCo democrats suspect that many members will fear antagonizing China. It is expected that the bill will be much changed and that even its core, the 2.7 million voters, may not survive, or will be narrowed to perhaps 850,000—which is one of the concessions Britain offered to China during the negotiations. Mr. Patten made it clear when he appeared before the LegCo on February 24 that while he would prefer his original bill, if they watered it down he would accept it. This has enraged the democrats, who charge the governor with having caved in to the Chinese. Mr. Patten’s spokesmen explain that he has always said that he would never “go farther than the people of Hong Kong” with his political plans, and that if LegCo—which not everyone would agree equals the colony’s people—guts his bill, so be it.

On the day of Mr. Patten’s appearance in LegCo; and to convince it to vote for as much of the second part of his bill as possible, the British government published its account of why the seventeen sessions of negotiation with China broke down. The White Paper, of which 140,000 copies were published in Chinese, and 60,000 in English, is intended to show that throughout the 170 hours of negotiations the British were willing to compromise, and the Chinese either remained obdurate or reneged on whatever paltry compromises they offered. Peking attacked this publication as a diplomatic affront, but in January had already released a 10,000-character version in the People’s Daily, containing the Chinese view of the events.

What had been secret diplomacy for months, enlivened by leaks from each side, swiftly developed into open warfare by other means. But yet again it was plain that there had never been common ground between the two sides, apart from negligible matters like voting age.

In off-the-record briefings, British officials in Hong Kong conceded that so wide was the ideological and political chasm between the two sides that there had never been much point in the negotiations. They admitted as well that the 1984 Joint Declaration between Britain and China, which Sir Percy oversaw, did not foresee how easy it would be for Peking to corrupt future elections.

But while the medium-level officials who conducted the briefing on the White Paper would not yield on this point, others higher up agreed that the White Paper, which asserts but does not document its charge, is no more likely to persuade the uneasy LegCo members who are wondering whether they should vote for the Patten plan—and attract Peking’s revenge—or accept the case advanced with equal vigor by China.

Five days after the British White Paper China published 17,000 characters of official rebuttal. Modestly titled Facts About a Few Important Aspects of Sino-British Talks, it was greeted by Peking’s supporters here with satisfaction, in contrast to the puzzled reaction of local liberals to the British White Paper.

Margaret Ng, a leading Hong Kong lawyer and a fierce critic of Peking, derided the British account. Why, she asked, did they assume at a vital point in the negotiations that Chinese silence implied agreement, sufficiently so for the Cabinet to feel a degree of hope. Peking’s diplomats, Ms. Ng noted, had earlier indicated their negative position. “Given the earlier disagreement, how can the British side be justified in taking silence for a ‘yes’ answer?”

Ms. Ng concluded that “the British are no match for the Chinese in this so-called negotiation game. If they allow themselves to be dragged further into the mire they will become totally lost.” She described the White Paper as “so unhelpful to the British position that the Chinese might have chosen to leave well alone and remain silent.”

Even Governor Patten appeared weary of the wrangling. After observing that while the facts in both documents were largely the same but the interpretations varied, he said, “My impression is that the community doesn’t want to see charge and countercharge week after week through the spring….”

China did not relent. Mr. Patten was soon accused of hoping “to turn Hong Kong into an independent or semi-independent political entity that cannot be controlled by the central government after 1997.” This possibility is rejected in the conclusion of Peking’s 17,000-character document: “Hong Kong will soon return to the embrace of its motherland. Nobody can stop it.”

There are faint signs, however, that the two sides may be ready to move into discussions where some agreement may be possible. Handing over the so-called Defense Lands on which the British forces are quartered may be such an issue. So is—but far more remotely—the new airport, which China has been using for years as a political weapon against the British, although it agrees the airport is badly needed. Peking cannot agree on the airport now, with the Patten issue still so hot, but within a year, some optimists here believe, China will agree that the airport, which the British are in any event building, can be completed. Under no circumstances, however, will Peking permit the airport’s opening day to be early enough for the hated Patten to cut the ribbon.

Patten has scored two recent foreign triumphs. During his trip to Australia in early February, the foreign minister praised his policies, drawing from Peking a charge that Patten was attempting to “internationalize” the Hong Kong dispute. Then, at the beginning of March, President Clinton and Vice-President Gore said much the same thing, with Warren Christopher adding that how China treats Hong Kong is a human-rights matter, which instantly relates it to the MFN controversy.

But whatever happens, Sir Percy Cradock’s test will now be applied by everyone here: Has Mr. Patten done all this for himself, for Britain, and for some kind of honor which has nothing to do with Hong Kong? Has he left Hong Kong vulnerable to a China in which, during the leadership struggle to succeed the dying Deng Xiaoping, no candidate can win who seems like a “maiguode,” one who sells or betrays his country—which in this case would mean looking soft on Hong Kong.

Or is it always good to do the right thing, no matter how late? And will Governor Patten have installed a protective structure here, behind which Hong Kong people can build a more democratic system that Peking would not dare shatter in 1997? For if Peking did, it would risk international disapproval, which might include reluctance to invest here, and create a sullen and volatile work force.

Somewhere in all this is the real Patten, a politician through and through, but a believer too in Victorian reformist values. He means it when he says that Hong Kong is one of the world’s greatest successes, when he praises its entrepreneurial vitality, and when he talks to ordinary people as if he cares about their lives. When he visits the site of an industrial accident and says that Hong Kong cannot build its success on dead workers, he means that too. There is something Victorian in his confidence that China can be treated like any other country, and that groveling before it, as he thinks Britain used to do, is dishonorable. He uses mockery—including self-mockery—and irony, to which Chinese tend to be deaf. He lounges in his chair and crosses his arms, which in Chinese eyes leaders do not do. These are social errors: it is not necessary to grovel to China to appreciate its own values. As Kipling said, hustling the East is a risky business. Or as a Chinese here with long experience working for Peking said recently, “Patten means well. He has a good heart. But sometimes he wants things for people here before they want them themselves. He seems amazed when Peking gets angry. When you’re dealing with Peking it’s like ‘pao mogu.”’ She meant that Chinese dried mushrooms are very hard. To get one really soft, before cooking it, you have to be patient.

But Patten has stood up to China, in the face of not only Sir Percy Cradock, but all the Foreign Office mandarins who assured him that the way to deal with Peking is to state a position and, if the Chinese demur, step back. They have all the cards, and if you surrender gracefully, the way Britain did in the 1984 negotiations which transferred Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, the Chinese will “give you face” by making some concessions. If you resist, the experts warned the governor, Peking will do terrible things.

Although he was willing to make substantial concessions himself during the recent negotiations, Patten refused to crumble when China stonewalled. But now although the main negotiations have broken down, Peking is sending signals that talks are possible on the defense lands and the airport, and it may show a similar inclination to talk on other issues where it is in China’s interest to compromise. The skies have not fallen, the stock market has not collapsed, and Peking will not turn off the water.

It is a tremendous drama and a tremendous gamble. Hong Kong is often likened to a golden goose which China dares not kill; but as the sardonic Chris Patten cautions, “History is littered with dead golden geese.”

March 10, 1994

  1. 1

    See Hong Kong Sunday Morning Post, February 13, 1994.

  2. 2

    See Hong Kong Sunday Morning Post Magazine, February 13, 1994.

  3. 3

    Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 853.