Last Exit

Murray Sayle

  • The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong by Jonathan Dimbleby
    Little, Brown, 461 pp, £22.50, July 1997, ISBN 0 316 64018 2
  • In Pursuit of British Interests: Reflections on Foreign Policy under Margaret Thatcher and John Major by Percy Cradock
    Murray, 228 pp, £18.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 7195 5464 0
  • Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule: The Economic and Political Implications of Reversion edited by Warren Cohen and Li Zhao
    Cambridge, 255 pp, £45.00, August 1997, ISBN 0 521 62158 5
  • The Hong Kong Advantage by Michael Enright, Edith Scott and David Dodwell
    Oxford, 369 pp, £20.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 19 590322 6

Sovereignty: supremacy in respect of power, domination or rank; supreme dominion, authority, or rule.


Without conflicting mental reservations, international agreements would be impossible.

French diplomatic maxim

Christopher Francis Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor, famously wept just before he left aboard the royal yacht Britannia at midnight on 30 June, while sirens whooped and rockets soared over Asia’s most stunning harbour. Tears of joy? Relief? Despair? The book he is reportedly writing in his French retreat may tell us; meanwhile we can only guess. The peaceful transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China – all things considered, the unlikeliest end any empire ever had – went off without a visible hitch. Almost every day of his five-year term, Patten did battle, as he saw it, on Hong Kong’s behalf. Towards the end he was all but alone, shunned by those he had, as he saw it, tried to protect, on the issue he thought most important: democracy. When he arrived, Hong Kong had a partly elected legislature; after he left, it had to start all over again. Under Chinese sovereignty (see above) there may not be a Patten Square or statue any time soon; but the one quasi-democratic election he did manage to hold, in 1995, could conceivably figure in Chinese history as a harbinger of things to come. And, while he was away, the Conservative Party, whose Pyrrhic victory he stage-managed five years earlier, had suffered its worst defeat this century. A swirl of emotions, complex enough to make even a hardened politician cry, may best explain the last governor’s dampened cheeks.

For the beaming new rulers of Hong Kong, China’s President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, 1 July 1997 was set beside the sacred dates of 10 October 1911, when the first Chinese Republic was proclaimed, and 1 October 1949, when China’s new five-starred red flag was hoisted on Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing, and Chairman Mao exulted: ‘China has stood up!’ Now, for the first time in 156 years, no alien flag, no foreign soldier, no uninvited official defiles any part of the Chinese motherland, with the exception of nearby Macao, but that tiny Portuguese enclave is due to follow Hong Kong before the century’s end. The last of the ‘unequal treaties’ forced on China in its years of sorrow has been torn up, the last patch of stolen Chinese earth reclaimed. In Britain, the few who knew much about Hong Kong were glad to be honourably shot of an accidental, unrewarding and possibly dangerous responsibility. For China, the reversion continued a change of fortune without precedent in its history. Since Mao, the worst ruler China ever had, died in 1976, China has indeed stood up, reversed the decline of centuries, more than doubled its income and opened up to the world, relatively speaking. Even a guess at Hong Kong’s future involves gauging the political and psychological capital China’s rulers have invested in the success of the ‘one country, two systems’ on which it is premised – all the more since the appeal of Communism is fast withering away, leaving patriotism and prosperity as China’s only unifying principles.

The way the famous Hong Kong lease was ended supports this view. It must be one of the flimsiest deeds ever to have been honoured exactly on its due date. In 1898, when the alien Qing (or Manchu) dynasty was at its last gasp, a British army captain decided that Hong Kong needed strategic depth for defence against local trouble makers. By the Second Convention of Peking, the disintegrating dynasty agreed to lease what Hong Kong still calls its New Territories to the British for 99 years. Why a lease? Because no one dreamed that the territories would one day make up more than nine-tenths of a city of more than six million people, and the British feared that outright annexation would provoke rival empires to counter-annexations, touching off World War One in Kow-loon instead of Sarajevo. Why 99 years? Because a lease needs a date. Why did the Qing dynasty sign? Because its last hope lay in getting foreign help against its own people, and it was ready to sign anything. The lease was never ratified, no rent was ever paid, and China gained nothing tangible from it – except that, by expiring, it has brought the rest of Hong Kong, ‘ceded in perpetuity’, back to mother China.

That lion-hearted Liberal William Ewart Gladstone, who died while he was trying to solve the Irish Question, said of the First Opium War, which ended with Hong Kong under British rule: ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of.’ A comic classic, Foreign Mud by Maurice Collis, tells the story, but in China the Opium War is not funny. The veteran director Xie Jin’s new $12 million blockbuster (the budget was raised in Shanghai) modelled, he says, on Schindler’s List, eulogises Beijing’s heroic commissioner, Lin Zexu, who provoked the British to war by burning 1250 tons of Indian opium smuggled into Canton, mostly by the Scottish firm Jardine Matheson (still, rather more respectably, active in Hong Kong). Commissioner Lin asked, in a personal letter to Queen Victoria bristling with Chinese officialdom’s abiding suspicion of British good faith: ‘We have heard that in your honourable barbarian country the people are not permitted to inhale the drug. If it is so harmful, how can seeking profit by exposing others to its evil power be reconciled with the decrees of heaven?’ Her Majesty had no reply; but holding the high moral ground did not protect Qing China from the Royal Navy, which sank the Emperor’s fleet of war junks with only one British sailor being grazed by a stray Chinese cannonball, and followed up by blockading Beijing. Adopting the ancient Confucian policy of soothing and pacifying, the reigning emperor, Dao Guang, quickly ceded a barren offshore island which happened to enclose one of the world’s finest deep-water anchorages, now ambiguously called Hong Kong (‘Fragrant Harbour’), and opened five other ‘treaty ports’ to the British, who were soon followed by other foreigners demanding similar concessions. British Hong Kong’s first business was warehousing illicit opium. Ever since, Hong Kong has been a centre for activities of which Beijing has, one way or another, disapproved, but which have had strong local support – including the revolution of 10 October 1911.

When I was based there in the early Seventies, covering the bitter end in Vietnam, Hong Kong was a tranquil haven seemingly far removed from the wars that were (as some still are) dividing Asia – not least the Chinese civil war, which continues in rhetorical form to this day. Yet I never saw the smallest conflict on Hong Kong’s crowded streets. The Bank of China’s tower carried a giant sign, ‘A Long, Long Life to Chairman Mao!’, often used as a backdrop for photos of the Hong Kong Cricket Club. Chinese Communist sympathisers ran their own schools and department stores, where the Little Red Book was sold over the counter (it no longer is anywhere in China). Any Chinese compatriot could easily lead the complete Communist life in Hong Kong; although some un-British things were just not on – no dog meat restaurants, for instance, and gambling restricted to the Jockey Club and the Stock Exchange – contact with British imperialists could be minimal. The same tolerance extended to supporters of the Kuomintang, the Nationalists who had found sanctuary in Taiwan behind the protection of the US Seventh Fleet. They, too, displayed their flag, in a district by the vintage colonialist name of Rennie’s Mills. Both sides openly ran newspapers and silently had swarms of intelligence agents in place. When I further learnt that every duck, every pig, every bag of cement needed to keep Hong Kong going was purchased, for hard currency, from ‘the Mainland’, as China is still called (although most of Hong Kong is on the mainland, too), and that almost all Hong Kong’s fresh water comes from reservoirs far away in China, I realised that I was witnessing a political miracle, or more likely, as I soon divined, a tacit deal. Hong Kong was not defended by the few strands of barbed wire along the border, or by the four battalions of British troops, three of them usually Gurkha mercenaries, available to oppose China’s army of 2.5 million, or by a onesided treaty which no post-Qing Chinese government has ever recognised. The economies of China and Hong Kong were even then closely entwined (as those of China and Taiwan have never been). British pomp and circumstance camouflaged a simple truth: Hong Kong was there by Chinese permission, because it suited Chinese purposes; a state of affairs we might call two systems (for show), one country (in all the essentials).

This had come about, not through vile Occidental cunning, but by chance. When the Governor, Sir Mark Young, emerged from a Japanese prison camp in 1945, he brought out a plan to empower Hong Kong to run some of its own affairs, on a basis of one ratepayer (literate in English or Chinese), one vote, as part of the leisurely run-up to self-rule that was normal in all British colonies. His plan got little local support. Few Chinese businessmen saw any need to share even municipal government with rickshaw-pullers. Hong Kong’s British (mostly Scottish) tycoons have never lost their buccaneering, we-know-how-to-operate-out-East ways. Young’s modest plan for democracy mildewed in tropical pigeon-holes, and anyway, over all such schemes hung the lease. Then, after the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, more than two million destitute, mostly illiterate, refugees surged irresistibly into Hong Kong. Surprisingly, no Red Army soldiers followed. To feed and house the uninvited newcomers halfway decently, and find them jobs in new light industries was a splendid achievement; but it brought the risk that, if open politics were permitted, Hong Kong would split ungovernably along Chinese civil war lines, with one side’s backers holding the tap on Hong Kong’s daily water supply. Two harsh-looking Hong Kong laws, the Public Order Ordinance and the Societies Ordinance, forbade unauthorised demonstrations or ‘foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region’, ‘foreign’ discreetly left undefined. The actual solution was to permit no politics at all, this with the tacit consent of the Communist authorities in nearby Guangzhou (Canton). Only once, in July 1967, when civil government had all but collapsed in China, was there serious violence in Hong Kong, with four dead in Maoist riots in Kowloon – an astonishingly peaceful record, considering Hong Kong’s exposed position. An unwritten deal – brokered at the local level by the many Chinese clans of Hos and Wus living on both sides of the border – is the likeliest, indeed the only possible explanation. Does it still hold? Will the Chinese Communist Party now be permitted to operate in Hong Kong? Kenneth Lieberthal raises this interesting question in his contribution to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule, but has no ready answer.

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