Sunday, April 14, 2013

Baroness Hong Kong

As the swinging 70s gave way to the more anxious 1980s, people in Hong Kong became increasingly apprehensive about a fast-approaching, though once comfortably distant, date – 1997, the expiry date for the vast (by Hong Kong definition) hinterland acquired in 1898 on a 99-year lease and still known as the “New” Territories.

Many businessmen were growing anxious about the uncertain impact of this impending change would have on business basics: would land leases be extended beyond that date (virtually all land in Hong Kong then as now is “crown” land and parceled out on long-term leases?) Would contracts be honored? More to the point: What did China intend to do with Hong Kong?
It was against this background that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made her famous first visit to Beijing in September, 1982, to begin negotiating the future of the British colony with the Chinese Communist government of Deng Xiaoping. The meeting did not go that well.

Thatcher went to Beijing hoping to persuade China’s leaders that continuing British administration of the territory was necessary for the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution, which essentially ended only with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, was still a vivid memory, China’s revolutionary opening and reforms only just beginning.
She knew relatively little about China or Hong Kong, although she was undoubtedly briefed that China did not recognize as valid the 19th century treaties that had ceded Hong Kong island and the tip of Kowloon peninsula to Britain “in perpetuity” after the Opium Wars. She must also have known that   Hong Kong could not continue as a viable entity without the New Territories.

The prime minister,  however, seemed to think she had a duty to at least try to uphold the validity of 19th century treaties, that she claimed were still valid under any consideration of international law. The issue came down to sovereignty. Would Britain keep it beyond 1997, or would they have to surrender the entire territory?
For his part, Deng Xiaoping was unmovable on the notion that China would resume full sovereignty. Anything less would make him complicit in the treasonous territorial giveaways of the late Qing Dynasty. Otherwise, he was willing to grant generous concessions guaranteeing Hong Kong’s way of life and liberties post-1997 under his famous but never before tried one-nation, two systems formulation.

Much has been made in retrospectives following Mrs. Thatcher’s recent death of how the “Iron Lady” had met her match in Deng. This is unfortunate. To be sure Deng, a former revolutionary war commander, was a tough hombre. But in truth Thatcher had a weak hand, which she was smart enough to understand. As the British would say, continued colonial administration of Hong Kong was just not on.
It took two more years of difficult negotiations for the British to finally come around to this position. They were trying times. In October, 1983, when it appeared that negotiations might collapse, the Hong Kong dollar began to plunge in value. That led to the pegging of the currency at 7.8 to the U.S. dollar, a peg that continues to this day.

In 1984 London formally agreed to surrender sovereignty over the entire territory, which Thatcher confirmed in a letter to Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang. Later she made her second trip to Beijing to formally sign the Joint Declaration at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People.
Thatcher had been out of office for seven years when the actual transition ceremony took place at midnight June 30, 1997, so she didn’t have to sit on the dais and watch the Union flag lowered for the last time. That role fell to newly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair. She was probably happy to be out of it.

In 2007 Thatcher gave an interview that expressed “regret” that she could not have persuaded China to accept continued British rule. But there is no shame in playing a leading part in what was one of the most enlightened yet practical acts of diplomacy in modern times. It gave Hong Kong people far more autonomy over their affairs than any of the so-called “autonomous regions” in China proper.
Most of the commentary on Thatcher’s death both in Hong Kong and China was laudatory. “We have no reason not to show our respect to this woman who signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” wrote the Global Times, an affiliate of the official government organ the China Daily.

Actually, the British political figure that Beijing truly hated was the last governor Christopher Patten (appointed by Thatcher’s successor John Major). He took a confrontational attitude tone with Beijing which hit back with such endearing terms as “sinner of a thousand years”. It will be interesting to see how the Chinese press handles his death, if it acknowledges it at all.
As Hong Kong and China look back on the nearly sixteen years since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, both find their worst fears unrealized but so too their best hopes. Many Hong Kongers, though recognizing that their basic liberties are intact, are still disappointed that the territory is only partially democratic with only vague promises if more to come later.

For its part, Beijing is happy that the territory has not become, as it had feared, a base to subvert the communist rule on the mainland. But it is a source of disappointment that their punctilious observation of the terms of the Joint Declaration has not earned them much love. Hong Kong people still think of themselves as Hong Kongers first and Chinese (as in citizens of the People’s Republic of China) second.
Indeed, tensions between Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese visitors have been rising in recent years as newly rich Chinese jack up property prices and hog space in maternity wards to give birth to “anchor babies”. Of late, protestors have taken to displaying the old British colonial flag. It is meant mostly to irritate Beijing, not nostalgia for colonial days. But one imagines that Thatcher would take a quiet satisfaction from the sight.

*Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell, My Colony: Last Days in the life of British Hong Kong






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April 27, 2013 at 6:19 AM  

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