Watch the waste paper

Mark Elvin

  • The Fate of Hong Kong by Gerald Segal
    Simon and Schuster, 256 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 671 71169 5
  • The End of Hong Kong: The Secret Diplomacy of Imperial Retreat by Robert Cottrell
    Murray, 244 pp, £19.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 7195 4992 2

Nearly four years ago now I was the executive producer of a film, Hong Kong: The Hidden Fear. The editing was finished in June 1989, almost on the day of the events in Tiananmen Square. Its gentle, balanced and in-depth probing was swamped by the images of Chinese government violence then sweeping the world. Though I did not know it at the time, the film was to be the end for me of years of involvement with the problems of the future of the Territory. For many of these years I was a member of the Friends off Hong Kong Committee, an admirable body on which I ceased to be active when I moved to Canberra.

The Friends represented (and represent) many differing, at times conflicting, strands of thought. My views on what has gone wrong with British policy should therefore be taken as representing only my views. From about 1984, when I forecast in a letter to the Times much of what has happened since (notably the accelerated middle-class emigration), my central line of thought has been this: that the only way in which the political and economic price to be paid by the People’s Republic of China for mistreating Hong Kong after 1 July 1997 can be raised high enough to have some hope of being an effective deterrent to thuggery is for the question to be internationalised. The United States, the European Community, Japan and others should be persuaded to become collective guarantors of Hong Kong’s survival, under Chinese sovereignty but in a reasonably democratic form underpinned by an independent, broadly common-law, legal system.

Assembling such an international consortium would have been no easy task in the past. (My one friend in America who was an acquaintance of then President Reagan made this quite plain to me in private at the time: the USA would be reluctant to join such a consortium chiefly because its businessmen hoped to make a killing in the opening China market.) British diplomacy can be resourceful, however, when it has a mind to be, and in 1984 had more than ten years to put together such a grouping. It may be too late, or close to too late, now. The policy may or may not have been a feasible one. What impressed me, and startled Westminster friends much more versed in politics than I was, was the cold refusal of those responsible even to enter into discussion, apparently convinced that they had a monopoly of wisdom. One formed the impression that they were too proud to face up to the fact that, in East Asia at least, Britain was now no more than a little gang faced by a big gang. If Hong Kong and HMG’s policy were to go to perdition, they were determined to be the only ones responsible.

To date, Governor Patten has kept his head admirably amid the banging of demon-scaring drums and gongs by the Chinese Government. The important point, when subjected to such an assault, is not to overreact: it is dangerously easy, by so doing, to provide the other side with additional means of mobilising local and international opinion against one. But there are more substantial problems as well – problems that lie below the level of the Chinese political opera. If I had authentic up-to-date information about these problems, it would probably be improper for me to write about them in public, but I don’t, and what follows is based simply on past general knowledge and conversations with Hong Kong friends. The effective control of the Territory is founded on the intelligence contained in the steady flow of reports from confidential informants, which serve – in effect – as the nervous system for the body politic. As the time for the Communist takeover draws nearer, these informants have been getting more apprehensive about what the future may hold for them if their identity and role become known to the Communists. Some have asked that their reports be shredded after being read; others are no longer willing to perform. The critical question is at what point the nervous system becomes so faulty that sensitively-attuned government becomes impossible.

A more widely based democratic system, as envisaged by Governor Patten, to some degree offers an alternative, or at least a complementary, system of feedback for public opinion, and may even be seen as a necessity rather than an ideological luxury. As early as the middle Eighties, Communist infiltration of parts of the Hong Kong bureaucracy was serious (according to Taiwanese sources), and general opinion today has it, rightly or wrongly, that one cannot send a letter from abroad to a person under Communist political surveillance in Hong Kong without it being intercepted and read. There has also long been a sort of shadow local Communist government waiting in the wings; in 1989 it was called the Hong Kong and Macao Work Committee.

Some parts of the future of Hong Kong are easy to read; some extremely difficult. The existing ‘cadre-capitalist cuddling’ will develop further. (I thought of the phrase some years back, as I tried to characterise the total disregard of Hong Kong public opinion shown by those in power when pursuing the construction of a nuclear power-plant at Daya Bay, on a slightly seismic site a few tens of kilometres northeast of the Territory.) It will become a system in which favoured large businesses will ally themselves even more tightly with the political power-holders from the Mainland, for mutual benefit. The legal system will lose most of its force to politically-directed settlements of disputes and difficulties. The cadre of officers running the police force will be reconstructed around personnel loyal to the Communists. The technically trained but only modestly wealthy middle class will continue to try to escape. As mid-1997 approaches, slightly more than half a million people will have left over the previous decade. (It is useful to recall that official figures, based on a very accurate count of visas issued by consulates, ignore those who leave as businessmen, students or tourists and then vanish into overseas Hong Kong networks.)

It will presumably continue to be possible to leave after 1997, but it will require payments to officials as it does, for example, for boat-people in China today. A few people with political skills and ambitions, eyeing the vacancies opening up with the departure of the more skilled and more experienced, will no doubt stay. The international financial market will mostly volatilise to Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok and other cities. The entrepôt trade linking South China with the world, and the provision to outsiders of the cultural intermediary services needed for dealing with the South Chinese economy, will continue to do adequately well – even if (as some analysts expect) the economic South China Bubble does not continue expanding at its present rate. The arts and humanities side of intellectual life will decline; applied science and computer studies will probably do no worse than they do now. There will almost certainly be one or more public panics over the value of the Hong Kong dollar, as there have been in the past; in this case there will be more justification, and even more serious consequences. Pressure on religion may be unpleasant. The Catholic Church has quietly prepared a strategy for survival – to be used if and only if it becomes absolutely necessary – that is to some extent based on the historically rather un-Catholic decentralisation that allowed the Protestant ‘house-churches’ on the Mainland to survive the persecution of the Cultural Revolution.

What is much harder to foresee is whether the cadres running Hong Kong after July 1997 will owe their primary loyalty to the Guangdong provincial region or to the central government in Beijing. A great deal will depend on this, including the treatment of whatever quasi-democratic institutions remain in the Territory at the time of the takeover. A predominantly regional loyalty, with the bond of a shared Cantonese culture, might lead to a much more restrained approach towards Hong Kong. Sheer greed will, however, make the centre reluctant to yield too much. What we don’t know is how strong central government will be in four years’ time, especially if the present group of old men who run it, and who still command nation-wide networks of loyalty built up through involvement from the beginning with the revolutionary process, has gone or is much enfeebled. Nor should it be forgotten that investments in Hong Kong by mainland Chinese, including unofficial investments made personally by those with official status, are reputed to be quite substantial, especially in real estate. This may provide some slight check on bad behaviour on the pan of the Chinese government. Though it would be unwise to bet too high on this, it is a card of some modest value in Governor Patten’s hand.

Another imponderable is the level of demophobia – if we can coin this word for a fear of democracy – that will be felt at that time by the Chinese leadership. Disquiet at a possible spread of democratic infection from Hong Kong is generally recognised to be one of their major current worries. What is unclear is its relative weight, over the longer run, as compared with concern with the well-being of the Territory, through which a large percentage of China’s foreign trade still runs. From a policy point of view, the last word on this should probably be left with Martin Lee, leader of the democratic forces in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. As he has stressed (I am summarising a conversation in Sydney last year), the British are not going to have to put up with the consequences of their decisions. Most of the present inhabitants of Hong Kong will have to do so. If the majority, through the democratic process, are prepared to take the risk of offending the Mainland government – and they are far from unaware of the dangers they will be running if they do – by continuing to vote for democrats rather than local Communist running-dogs, then a residual colonial government, however well-intentioned, has no moral right to prevent them from taking this road. I do not know if Governor Patten has tacitly accepted the force of this argument, but he is acting as if he at least recognises that, within the bounds of a proper prudence, it has real substance.

The most predictable future trend of all is that we shall continue to be favoured at regular intervals over the next four years with books and television programmes foretelling the future of Hong Kong, and taking us through that future as it becomes the present and telling us what it means. Gerald Segal’s The Fate of Hong Kong is a typical product of this process. It is based on English-language periodical sources like the Far Eastern Economic Review and on a number of recent English books on the subject, and reads like a beta-double-plus newspaper editorial put together on the basis of a good clippings library. There is a lot of apparent ‘information’, quite unevaluated for the most part, though useful at that level, and off-the-cuff judgments: ‘market forces far more than governments will become major players in determining Hong Kong’s fate,’ or ‘the fate of Hong Kong was increasingly being decided on factory floors in South China.’ There is not the ghost of an analytical framework to give a context to such assertions, the first of which, at least in the unqualified form in which it stands, can be stated unequivocally to be rubbish.

While a majority of Segal’s formulations are more sensible than this, and while the book could usefully be read by someone who wanted a quick introduction to the subject, the lack of any analytical follow-through robs his more interesting points of conviction. For example, he thinks it likely that there will be, or at least could be, some sort of a convergence between Hong Kong, in some undefined socio-politico-economic sense, and the Guangdong hinterland, in such a fashion that it will be able to resist Beijing, again in some not clearly specified sense. This is not an impossible scenario, but it does need careful examination, and precise formulation, not just statement. To cite just one complicating factor, and a relatively minor one at that: Mr Segal’s apparent lack of acquaintance with ordinary Hong Kong society means that he is unaware of the quite extensive dislike (part of it inspired by snobbery, part perhaps by a dislike of competition, part of it by blood-stained family memories) that many long-established middle-class Hongkongers feel for recent migrants from the mainland – a dislike which is one of the many motives impelling them to want to emigrate. We were quite struck by this when interviewing, in Cantonese, with Cantonese-speaking colleagues, for our film. I remember, too, an officer responsible for tracking down IIs (illegal immigrants into Hong Kong from the Mainland), who confessed quite readily that he let his men beat up the IIs they captured, because it released tensions and made them – that is, his own men – easier to handle. Mr Segal speaks easily – all too easily – of ‘grass-roots apathy’ towards politics.

The reality is often more subtle. Our interviews with industrial workers in 1989 made it plain to us that a deliberate policy of personal non-involvement in local politics was not infrequently accompanied by a quite surprising factual knowledge of, and interest in, politics both in Hong Kong and in places like Taiwan and Singapore – not the same thing as apathy. There is no ‘feel’ for the place or the society whatsoever in the book. The fact that the multifaceted democratic movement is almost always referred to by the condescending term ‘activists’ does not help to convey any sense of the specificity and reality of Hong Kong. ‘Feel’, ‘specificity’ – what do I mean? Well, the reader has to be helped to understand a place where the reputation of a former high Hong Kong official, who had retired to just outside London and was still engaging in a little business, can be destroyed at a private and luxurious lunch by one remark dropped in the gentlest of acid tones: ‘I understand that X was seen descending from a bus.’ No more was needed. I know, I was there. The speaker was a Hong Kong Chinese.

Something like a fifth of the book is devoted to immigration policy in various countries, including Canada and Australia. One point that emerges is the apparent concern of British officialdom to anchor the Hong Kong Chinese in Hong Kong, and the manner in which they put limited but real – though, as it turned out, ineffectual – pressure on Canada and Australia not to go on accepting so many Hong Kong migrants. Why were the British mandarins so keen to stop emigration? Segal does not explain, but I have the uncharitable suspicion that at the root of their behaviour was a desire not to have to accept that their longstanding over-generous evaluation of the upper Chinese leadership was faulty. I recall an almost unbelievable evening’s talk in the mid-Seventies with the late Sir Edward Youde when he was Ambassador in Beijing, in the course of which he seemed to be trying to persuade me that Deng was really a closet liberal in the broadest sense of that word. I thought for an hour or so this was just a diplomat’s game, to test my reactions, but in the end, to my alarm, I came to think he actually meant it. I eventually became so well known for my ungenerous views of the Beijing regime that at breakfast in St Antony’s College, a few days after Tiananmen, the (now former) Warden said to me: ‘Pleased now, Mark, that your views about China have been proved correct?’ To which I answered: ‘Good God, I would have given almost anything to have had them proved wrong!’ Of course, there is no way of showing that such suspicions are well-founded, but the credibility of Britain’s policy towards China, and hence careers, may have been at stake. I remember yet another conversation, still further back (in 1965, I think), and again at St Antony’s, in which an FO expert with a nice sense of humour said to me: ‘Now, if we wanted to do something really anti-Chinese, we could give them back Hong Kong tomorrow.’ We both knew he was joking, of course, but it was a joke whose far from trivial point retains a certain wry resonance after almost thirty years.

Robert Cottreil’s The End of Hong Kong is a different proposition from Segal’s book. It is a detailed, well-written and basically plausible reconstruction of the negotiations between Britain and China that eventually led to the Joint Declaration of 1984, which to all intents and purposes sealed the fate of Hong Kong. Until papers are released under the Thirty-Year Rule, and any relevant material in the confidential interviews archive held by the Rhodes House Library in Oxford comes due for public access, we are unlikely to have a much better picture. In spite of the expenditure of an immense amount of diplomatic energy and ingenuity, the British were bound to lose since they had neither the desire, nor perhaps the imagination, to internationalise the issue effectively. Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, made this point much later, without, it seems, realising its implications, when he said: ‘Chris Patten can only express his exasperation, but Bill Clinton can turn off MFN – China’s most-favoured nation status in the US market – and with it growth in Guangdong.’ The British never (so far as I know) grasped this, and never seriously sought to mobilise US interest in democracy and human rights in relation to Hong Kong.

Sir Harold Nicolson is said once to have replied, when asked if anything could ever be learned from history, that the British delegation to Versailles had been given an account of the Congress of Vienna, approximately a century earlier, written by Sir Charles Webster. From this they had learned that Talleyrand’s success in the negotiations, from a position of weakness, had been partly due to his having had agents collect the contents of the waste-paper baskets of other delegations, which contained the rough notes of their position papers. He was thus able to learn what they were going to argue the following day. At Versailles, Sir Harold added, ‘we therefore destroyed our waste paper.’ The interest of Cottrell’s book, though more complex, is not unlike that of Webster’s. The Chinese techniques of negotiating described in it should be carefully studied by anyone unfortunate enough to have to deal with them. In particular, no delegation should ever lose control of its own negotiating environment; for really serious issues this probably means refusing to negotiate in Beijing and meeting only on mutually-acceptable neutral territory. (This is my view, I should add, not Cottrell’s, though it is based on his materials.) The Chinese are, for example, quite prepared to use their local control of logistics in ways that a visiting delegation cannot counter, a tactic that can include issuing communiqués, through their New China News Agency, whose wording differs critically from that previously agreed. They also cannot be depended upon to respect confidentiality, but mix public assaults and messages with private sessions in an original, effective and obviously disconcerting way that needs, I would think, equally distinctive counters. Sinology, of which several in the British team had a command, does not, interestingly enough, seem to have been of any great assistance in this respect.

Cottrell notes a number of instances of British duplicity towards the people of Hong Kong. In the final chapter he describes the 1987 charade of pretending to consult public opinion as to which option it favoured for the Territory’s political system. On the crucial question of direct elections:

most of the views against direct elections had been expressed using pre-printed ‘form’ letters distributed ... among employees ... of leftist organisations ... who were required to add only a signature ... Much of the support for direct elections, on the other hand, had been co-ordinated by liberal activists who collected large numbers of signatures in the form of petitions ... The [Survey] Office decided that each signature on a preprinted letter would be counted as an ‘individual submission’, while each signature on a petition would not, enabling the ... government to make the otherwise extraordinary claim ... that: ‘more were against than in favour of the introduction of direct elections.’

This sums up exactly the flavour of times which I remember, from my visits, with a mixture of disbelief and disgust.

Cottrell envisages a number of possible endings. An escalation of tension may force the British out before 1997, or the transfer of sovereignty may be to ‘a China in which the Communist Party no longer holds sway’. Whatever happens, ‘it will be the end of what has, until that moment, been Hong Kong.’ I am afraid that he is right, and I recall the words of a Hong Kong pilot-friend who flew us all over the Territory in a small plane in December 1988: ‘If you have the choice, you have no choice.’ In other words, if you can, you go. The following June, already an American resident, he was back in Beijing, systematically rescuing the members of his organisation from the military chaos in the city, with a bravery that would have earned him from any army in the civilised world a decoration for extraordinary cold courage.