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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.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

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

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