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.

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