Lee Kuan Yew’s role in the Sino-British talks

March 26, 2015 12:28
Margaret Thatcher acknowledged that she was a great admirer of Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore's achievements. Photo: The Guardian

The story of A Tale of Two Cities between Singapore and Hong Kong actually took place during the Sino-British talks over the future of Hong Kong back in the '80s. According to recently declassified documents released by the British government, the late Lee Kuan Yew did have quite a role to play during that historic period.

On Sept. 24, 1982, Deng Xiaoping met with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Beijing, during which the Chinese leader refuted Britain’s argument that Hong Kong would no longer prosper without British rule by citing the example of Singapore.

According to the declassified official minutes of that meeting, Deng asserted that Hong Kong's continued prosperity depended wholly on China’s policy after the return of sovereignty. He said the Singaporeans took care of themselves so well after they gained independence.

It is generally believed that Deng’s assertion was inspired by his official visit to Singapore in November 1978. In his book One Man’s View of the World published in 2013, Lee said when Deng visited his country, what he saw was a prosperous island that had no natural resources whatsoever but where every citizen had enough money in their pockets to lead a decent life.

Through his own observations Deng concluded that Singapore's key to success was to attract foreign investment, through which cutting-edge technologies and management skills were brought into the tiny city state.

When he returned to China, Deng immediately established six special economic regions based on the Singaporean model, marking the beginning of the economic reforms that eventually turned China into the second largest economy today.

However, according to the official minutes, Margaret Thatcher was unimpressed. She said she also admired Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s achievements, but she also reminded Deng that Singapore was a sovereign state, whereas Hong Kong wasn’t, and therefore it would be inappropriate to make simple comparisons between the two.

Under normal circumstances, she said, Britain would have given Hong Kong a similar degree of sovereignty had it not been for Beijing's objections, and the people of Hong Kong also understood that reality.

On Sept. 26, or two days after her meeting with Deng, Thatcher came to Hong Kong and met with the official members of the Executive Council.

According to the declassified minutes, the then Financial Secretary Sir John Henry Bremridge expressed that it didn’t make sense to argue that Hong Kong would no longer be a financial hub without British rule, citing counter examples like Singapore and Taiwan.

Thatcher responded that China's paramount ruler did mention Singapore, too, but she already told him that Singapore was different because it was a sovereign state.

Two days later, the Prime Minister had a private meeting with the late shipping tycoon Pao Yue-kong, who had an audience with the Chinese leader the same day she met Deng.

Pao repeated what Deng had told him, which was China would rule Hong Kong based on the Singaporean model.

On Jan. 24, 1983, Lee Kuan Yew wrote to Governor Sir Edward Youde, saying that for the past 10 years, he came to Hong Kong almost every year in spring to meet with his predecessor Murray MacLehose to exchange ideas on various issues, and he would like to come again and meet with him in March.

Lee said although both Sir Percy Cradock, British ambassador to China, whom he had known well since they both studied at Cambridge, and Thatcher told him how tough it was at the negotiation table with the Chinese, he was still astounded by Beijing’s uncompromising stance on Hong Kong.

“It indicates how little I know about the mindset of the leaders in Beijing,” Lee said.

When the Sino-British talks reached a stalemate in February 1984, Lee met with the Undersecretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who specialized in Hong Kong’s affairs.

According to the declassified documents, as Beijing had set the deadline for wrapping up the talks in September that year, Lee tried to talk Thatcher into “backing down elegantly” so the talks could continue.

Lee concluded that throughout the talks the British had faced enormous difficulties in balancing the interests among the people of Hong Kong, foreign investors and China.

He said the British should have told the Chinese what they planned to do candidly in order to gain their understanding. Once London succeeded in persuading Beijing into allowing representative democracy to be implemented in Hong Kong, they must be very cautious about how to proceed with the democratization programme, especially not to offend Beijing or arouse its suspicions. Britain also needed to reassure foreign investors that their interests would be looked after.

Lee noted that governing Hong Kong would be a very delicate balance. Too much democracy will inevitably lead to conflict of interests between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Finally, on December 19, 1984, Thatcher came to Beijing and concluded the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Chinese Premier Zhao Zhiyang, paving the way for the peaceful transition of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 25.

[Chinese version 中文版]

Translation by Alan Lee

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During their talks over the future of Hong Kong, Deng Xiaoping cited the example of Singapore to refute Margaret Thatcher's assertion that Hong Kong would no longer prosper without British rule. Photo: Internet

Independent public affairs consultant, former newspaper executive and web editor.