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Hong Kong - The British Should Have
Been Tougher, Earlier



LONDON-- The last 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 he wanted might have been obtained if it had not bneen for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot--he tried to obtain the lowest terms from the Chinese."

Chris Patten, Hong Kong's current government, is also about to be recalled to London. On June 30th after the union jack is hauled down at midnight and the yellow star hauled up he too will sail away, along with Prince Charles on the royal yacht, Britannia.

Did Mr. Patten, too, seriously misread the bnargaining relationship with China, not by settling for the lowest terms, but by demanding too much? Perhaps, say his legion of critics, he totally underestimated the Chinese, endlessly provoking them by pushing through his democracy reforms to the point where it became counterproductive. Now that power is within their grasp they are determined, they say, 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 ago when he took over.

Patten has behaved, say the Chinese, more in the mould of Sir Henry Pottinger, Elliot's successor, who on appointment immediately sailed up the Yangtse river and attacked Nanjing. Victorious, he ended hostilities with a treaty which ceded Hong Kong to the British "in perpetuity."

In retrospect it seems reprehensible that Margaret Thatcher when 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." In other words, 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.

She was argued out 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 Deng Xiaoping and thus it would be shortsighted to make a fuss.

Yet, we now know from recent reports that Deng Xiaoping never expected the British to cvapitulate so easily and was prepared to live with a longer and less well-defined transition. If only Mrs. Thatcher had continued to be tough, insisted on some years of delay, there would have been more time for Patten's reforms to take root. As it is only two years have passed since the first fully credible elections were held, not long enough for Beijing to accept them as part of the furniture.

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, thirty, forty and even sixty 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 comes to a close--the rule of Europeans over the peoples of Asia, the Americas and Africa. What an epitaph to Empire!

Still, the chances are that Patten's reforms will survive despite the continuous tirade of negative expletives emanating from 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 defense are to be directed by Beijing. Moreover, China has committed itself to elections in a year's time and the "ultimate" aim of the election of all members by "universal suffrage."

No doubt, to save its face, Beijing, as it has vowed to do, will disband the present legislature in the early hours of July 1st. But the leadership in Beijing knows that the price of not winning the trust and confidence of the people of Hong Kong is to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs--75% of the direct foreign investment in China comes through or from Hong Kong. Expect the promise of elections in a year's time to be honoured and, if not fully democratic, to be not that far short of it. After all the number one Chinese foreign policy goal is reunification with Taiwan, now very much a democracy. Any chance of that happening will be thrown to the wind if the incorporation of Hong Kong misfires. China is not about to shoot itself in that foot.


June 26, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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