Sunday, September 25, 2005

The British Agree to Throw in the Towel

The Communist chap with the rather large corsage on the left (where else would I place him?) is Zhou Nan. For the early 1990s, he was the head of Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, and the de facto Chinese leader in the territory. 'Territory'. The enigmatic word that we've had to use all our lives to describe Hong Kong, not a colony, not merely a city, not quite a country, one that foreign journalists have stumbled over to the annoyance and consternation of their editors.

The role for which he shall go down in history, however, is the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on September 26th, 1984, along with Her Majesty's representative, Sir Richard Evans. The negotiations that had begun tentatively in 1982 with Margaret Thatcher attempting to renew the lease on the New Territories (which ran out in 1997, unlike the rest of the territory) ended two years later with Britain agreeing to give back every square foot, including Kowloon and Hong Kong island which had been ceded to them in perpetuity.

Today, we take for granted the relatively smooth (let's face it, it could have been a lot, lot worse) function of 'One Country, Two Systems' and the irrevocability of China's reforms toward a capitalist system of private enterprise. But we must remember that in 1984, when Britain signed away all rights to their old Colony, the reforms in China were nascent and far from irreversible. At that point, the imprisoning of Mao's wife Jiang Qing and the 'Gang of Four' was just five years old. What made the British sign away their last vestige of empire?

The short answer, appreciated by Zhou Nan(the chap mentioned above), was that the British had no choice. Britain's measure of global power had declined precipitously in the 143 intervening years since first seizing Hong Kong during the Opium War. Their inability to defend their colony from a land-based invasion was amply demonstrated during World War II, to the great detriment of their standing in the eyes of all Asia. Just read the first sentence of the Joint Declaration:
"The Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China have reviewed with satisfaction the friendly relations existing between the two Governments and peoples in recent years and agreed that a proper negotiated settlement of the question of Hong Kong, which is left over from the past, is conducive to the maintenance of the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and to the further strengthening and development of the relations between the two countries on a new basis."
To me, the key words are, "left over from the past", and "on a new basis." While politely disguised in Chinese diplomatic English, they are both an acknowledgement that Britain Age of Empire was long over, and that the only way for China to be able to deal with Britain as a new equal partner (or should it be said that the tables are turned?) would be for Hong Kong to be returned. No doubt the Chinese of Hong Kong did not miss these nuances, holding their collective breath as they were on every word.

Given Britain's poor bargaining position, however, they did extract concessions from the Chinese about giving reassurances that Hong Kong would be able to continue with its way of life under Deng Xiaoping's "One Country, Two Systems" formula.

And China has been good on its word. There have of course been low points (June 1989 comes to mind), but all things considered, the pragmatism of the Hong Kong Chinese and their mainland masters have by and large put Hong Kong on a course that probably exceeded the expectations of Sir Richard, Lord (David) Wilson or any of the British delegation in 1984. Of course democracy remains a major sticking point, but keeping that date in September 26, 1984 when this article came out, we are very obviously much better off and perhaps sometimes could benefit from this perspective when making our mundane complaints.

In closing, I will simply comment that the wording of the Joint Declaration is a far cry from this letter from a young Queen Victoria to her uncle, the King of the Belgians, on 13th April 1841 during the Opium War:
My dearest Uncle, - I thank you very much for your letter of the 9th, received yesterday. I think, dear Uncle, that you would find the East not only as 'absurd' as the West, but very barbarous, cruel and dangerous into the bargain.

The Chinese business vexes us much, and Palmerston is deeply mortified at it. All we wanted might have been got, if it had not been for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot who completely disobeyed his instructions and tried to get the lowest terms he could... The accounts of the cruelty of the Chinese to one another are horrible. Albert is so much amused at my having got the Island of Hong Kong, and we think Victoria ought to be called Princess of Hong Kong in addition to Princess Royal.
Fellow lovers of history, perhaps we do not live in such a terrible age after all.


Anonymous said...

I would like to point out, HK Dsve, that I've been to some ''barbarous'' bars in East Tsim Tsa Tsui. But that was fun, and days are better now.

Anonymous said...

oh, and that was by Doug. Thank you.

And, after reading the mickey mao section on blog the talk, I take back what i said on simon's site. i see it clearly now.

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Doug, glad to see I didn't bend Geoffrey's ideas too far out of shape.

Tsim Sha Tsui East may still be a benighted land waiting for the cleansing of a more 'pure' civilization (I'll refrain from making a 'white man's burden' joke here, although Kipling was clearly taken with Hong Kong's red-light district), but it is I suppose more exception than the rule.:)