The British Empire Library

A Modern History Of Hong Kong

by Steve Tsang

Courtesy of OSPA

Trevor Clark (Nigeria 1949-59, Hong Kong 1960-77 (seconded WPHC 1972-77))
The bibliography of Steve Tsang's A Modern History of Hong Kong overwhelms. A consistent narrative neither overlooks nor exaggerates shortcomings. Governor Young's "1946 outlook" (no return to pre-war manners, involvement of residents in government), overlaid by the long Grantham years, was forgotten by the 1960s. Britain as a power was in decline, and China obsessed by past humiliations. The 1997 lease termination had already exposed differences between the Colonial and Foreign Offices in 1945, expunged after an amalgamated Foreign & Commonwealth Office administered colonies in the interests of Britain's external relations, and not of the inhabitants. Tsang untangles the knots of UK's interests, pursuing trade and tolerance with China, while overseeing the notional two-way flow of local sojourners and forestalling conflict between Chinese Communist Party and Kuomintang supporters in the streets.

HK's role of entrepot faded as Cold War embargoes tightened, while industry developed from pre-war torchlights, through plastic flowers for Daz packets, to hi-tech electronics and investment in Guangdong. Taipans remained blind to Chinese entrepreneurs' domination of wealth-creation, as HK became a financial centre supporting service industries. "Positive non-intervention" was not laisser-faire, since Government controlled land use tightly. This atmosphere was one key to the development of a distinct identity, neither British nor 100% Chinese. Another had been the 1950 border closing, with its ineffective self-balancing quota of Cantonese, few of whom returned north. The tenfold rise in population since the People's Republic of China's declaration proved the power of the magnet.

1966-67's Cultural Revolution frustrated Governor Trench's ideas for local administration; he had contemplated City District Officers, while commissioning a report on local representation, mothballed in face of riots. Apparently the Secretary for Chinese Affairs saw a challenge to his liaison officers. Confrontation allowed a new SCA to revive the CDO scheme, administrative officers looking after urban areas. Tsang praises Trench for beginning reforms for which MacLehose later received credit, including housing - and anti-corruption. MacLehose had the pull with Whitehall to turn law on its head - unaccountably wealthy had to prove innocence, a weapon denied to the anticorruption police who named offenders to Trench and MacLehose but had no evidence to stand up in a court where prosecution must prove guilt. The Independent Commission Against Corruption needed only to show a lifestyle beyond legitimate income. Tsang considers that the HK government met the traditional requirements for good Chinese government. Absence of democracy was shallowly excused as avoidance of PRC/KMT conflict in HK's ballots (but there was sense in Trench's view that the plethora of expert committees offered wider informed consultation than any parliament of ideologues).

The shibboleth "One Country, Two Systems" had been devised with Taiwan in mind, only happening to fit the Joint Declaration. Clever old China hands sought to finesse negotiations based on subtle reinterpretation of words in treaties only recognised by themselves; they failed by ignoring Chinese advice not to discuss sovereignty with Deng, for whom it was unshareable, whatever the attendant historical accidents, to be put right when convenient to China's priorities. It was Thatcher's folly to stand on the international inviolability of a signed treaty. Ultimately diplomats judged Britain's interests in international contexts: Thatcher thought marginally of the people involved. Businessmen supposed on more stable ground that Deng would not wring the neck of the goose laying golden eggs for China's trade. After the Joint Declaration the "transitional period" began: PRC assumed that in 1997 a machine would exist of which China would smoothly assume control.

Patten-bashers are reminded that "democratization" started under Governor Youde, stiffening PRC attitudes: "convergence" now meant HK ways conforming to PRC's. Tsang emphasizes how different the thought processes of London and Beijing were: yet where the Chinese saw an agreement as negotiated on "equal" terms, they fulfilled it to the strict letter. Tienanmen ignited the latent interest in the future for 3.25 million Chinese, by British law born The Queen's subject citizens, but still to PRC wholly Chinese. Granting 50,000 Hongkongers, who had helped model the colony, right of UK abode, in the context of Britain's incipient immigration problems, spoilt any hope that the 3 million others, however remote their ambition to settle in UK, trusted Britain to place their welfare at the head of agenda. Confidence weakened when PRC intervened in the Port and Airport Development Strategy (designed to underpin HK's future as regional powerhouse beyond 1997), not only because sovereign China insisted on controlling processes extending through retrocession, but because China could not understand that HK's commercial wealth belonged not to the government but to its entrepreneurs.

Less interested in HK than Thatcher, Major lost faith in the old guard after his Beijing visit over PADS. Hence Governor Patten. Again the two-way distorting mirror undid cleverness. Patten's "democratization" was modest, but because it was trumpeted as major, objections from PRC and cadres were loud, making Patten a public hero. He did PRC an unacknowledged favour by removing the overlapping memberships of executive and legislature (making it impossible for popular elected legislators to sit on the policy council). Yet pressure to legislate and effect the changes before handover conflicted with the PRC's deliberative practices (almost amounting to procrastination) and prevented prior Chinese agreement. Beijing then claimed that the "through train", whereby the newly elected Legco would still function after 1997 to its satisfaction, was derailed; a "new kitchen" would be constructed under purely Chinese auspices: UK was powerless. A Preparatory Committee would set about devising a substitute provisional appointed Legco, in advance of the Preliminary Working Committee's approach to the drafting of the Basic Law constitution. Tsang concludes with a close look at the legacy, which readers must judge for themselves.

British Empire Book
Steve Tsang
IB Tauris & Co Ltd,
1 86064 184 9


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