The Battle for Hong Kong

A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong

by Frank Welsh
Kodansha, 624 pp., $32.50
Chris Patten
Chris Patten; drawing by David Levine


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…

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