24 October 2016
High-rises on both sides of Victoria Harbor dazzle on the evening of July 1, 1997 to mark Hong Kong's handover to China. Photo: CNN
High-rises on both sides of Victoria Harbor dazzle on the evening of July 1, 1997 to mark Hong Kong's handover to China. Photo: CNN

Why Beijng was not too keen to retake Hong Kong at the outset

People familiar with the Sino-British talks may remember how London caved to Beijing, especially in the days before the signing of the Joint Declaration, the basis of Hong Kong’s change of sovereignty.

That allowed Beijing to claim victory in every aspect of the agreement, from basing rights for the People’s Liberation Army to how the official handover should unfold.

It was significant that the final accord came amid intense Chinese patriotism whipped up by the historic events surrounding the 1984 marathon talks.

But the fact is that until the early 1980s, Beijing still hadn’t made up its mind about how to deal with the Hong Kong question, according to a book on the Hong Kong handover policymaking compiled by the Baptist University’s David C. Lam Institute for East-West Studies.

Back then, the looming expiry of the 99-year lease on the New Territories had put London and the colonial authorities on tenterhooks despite Beijing’s inaction.

Had it not been for that deadline, Beijing probably wouldn’t have had any second thoughts about letting the British remain in Hong Kong after 1997, the book says.

The revelations are based on the memoirs of Huang Wenfang (黃文放), a Cantonese-born diplomat who worked at the Xinhua news agency’s Hong Kong branch for more than 40 years.

Among the three central authorities that emerged after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 — the Beijing government, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party — none had been more eager than the KMT to retake Hong Kong.

KMT supremo Chiang Kai-shek was ready to reclaim the crown colony, despite strong warnings from Winston Churchill, after the defeated Japanese occupiers withdrew from Hong Kong at the end of World War II.

Yet, before long, Chiang had to put the subject aside when conflict with Mao Zedong’s Red Army escalated into a civil war in 1946.

Mao never dwelled on the unresolved Hong Kong question due to a Washington-led embargo at the time, according to many commentators.

Beijing was perfectly happy to maintain the status quo.

After all, Hong Kong was the only entrepôt to bypass the trade blockade and keep vital military supplies flowing to China.

The official stance was that the issue would be addressed at “an appropriate time”.

One wonders whether Mao himself knew exactly what that appropriate time would be, especially after calamities ravaged China.

Still, Beijing was engaged at crucial junctures.

For instance, Premier Zhou Enlai warned Britain against democratizing Hong Kong, according to declassified information from the colonial office.

Also, Beijing prodded the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization to strike Hong Kong and Macau from the list of colonies after China became a UN member in 1970.

Deng Xiaoping subsequently refused to acknowledge the validity of land leases on the New Territories during a meeting with then Hong Kong governor Sir Murray MacLehose in 1979.

Two years later, Deng told Peter Carington, then the British foreign minister, “not to bring up the matter so early”.

Only after repeated nudging by the British since 1981 did Beijing start to consider the shape of things for Hong Kong post-1997.

Deng ordered his lieutenants to come up with a solution to serve two seemingly contradictory goals — take over sovereignty and ensure continued prosperity for Hong Kong.

Xinhua’s branch in Hong Kong preferred a British post-handover model but the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office had other ideas.

The Communist Party finally cooked up the “one country, two systems” concept at Deng’s behest, an arrangement originally conceived to lure Taiwan.

But many began to question exactly what it meant.

Lam Hang-chi, founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, wrote in a commentary in January 1984 that “putting faith in the Communist Party is like trusting Judas Iscariot”.

We all know the subsequent crises of confidence, the exodus that swept Hong Kong throughout the latter part of the 1980s and the fallout from the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989.

History continues to be made as Hong Kong moves toward an uncertain future.

Already, some observers are saying that had Beijing not reclaimed Hong Kong so early, it could have left both sides much better off than they are now.

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Read more:

Events that could have changed Hong Kong as we know it

How Deng made sure there would be a PLA garrison in Hong Kong

Shanghainese in Hong Kong: a tale of two cities

British and Chinese flags dominate the stage at the official handover ceremony at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Photo: HKGov

EJ Insight writer

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