Opinion: China and Hong Kong – a missed opportunity

Last weekend marked the 15th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong. On a torrentially wet evening on 30 June 1997, the UK relinquished control of a territory which was home to almost seven million people and one of Asia’s leading commercial centres.

It also marked the end of the most colossal missed opportunity to further Chinese democracy.

With the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Mrs Thatcher honoured the terms of the Convention of Peking by returning Hong Kong to China. Many at the time believed the deal provided few safeguards on the rule of law, human rights and democracy.

By the time I paid my first visit to Hong Kong with a European Parliament delegation, convened by Graham Watson, at the end of 1996, an air of inevitability pervaded. Many Hong Kong Chinese were embracing change. What alternative did they have? Expatriates were more divided; some preparing to leave, others anticipating little significant change to their lives. Institutions such as the Civil Service, led by the redoubtable Anson Chan, were already well advanced in preparing for the arrival of China’s appointee to run Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa

Most symbolically, it was the standing of the Legislative Council which spoke to the fear of the unknown.

A body which historically comprised appointees, its first limited elections took place six years before the handover. Notably it was the last Governor of Hong Kong who sought to make the Legislative Council more democratic, extending the scope of the so-called functional constituencies, and allowing a vote for every citizen. It was a highly popular move in the territory and demolished the argument of naysayers that the Chinese had little interest in democracy. Sadly, it was all too little, and too late. China established a Provisional Legislative Council in protest in 1996; it sat until the first elections post-handover in May 1998.

Returning with a European Parliament observer team in the run-up to those elections, I remember we were all struck by the determination of Hong Kong’s democrats such as Martin Lee, Emily Lau and Christine Loh, who campaigned to ensure that the will of the people was heard.

On 43% of the popular vote, Martin Lee’s Democratic Party were victorious but took just 12 seats in the 60 seat legislature. And so, Hong Kong’s limited electoral system ensured the will of the people was kept in check by the will of Beijing.

Had Britain shifted from its colonial mindset earlier and fostered democracy in Hong Kong before 1983, circumstances there today would be different; democracy could today be sitting on the doorstep of mainland China, with the unknown dynamics that would create.

As it emerges as an economic and political superpower, the perennial question is how we engage with China while not compromising on human rights? Megaphone diplomacy rarely works. What does matter to China are challenges to its strategic interests. That appears to be the point of maximum leverage. Unfortunately, significant milestones come and go such as accession to the World Trade Organisation and the Beijing Olympics. Opportunities seem to be missed; demands are made, few concessions are granted.

Compromise on human rights and democracy appears to characterise foreign policy and international affairs today as much as it did in 1983. The abiding memory of Hong Kong 15 years ago is the all too fleeting glimpse afforded its citizens of full and free elections once in 1995, only for that right to be snatched away less than two years later.

* Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He previously managed community and public affairs for an oil company with facilities near In Amenas.

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  • Steve Bradley 2nd Jul '12 - 8:42pm

    It’s a sad reality of international politics that if the Falklands had been claimed by the Chinese we’d have given it back to them years ago, and if Hong Kong had historical links to Argentina we’d be giving them two fingers from the Governor’s Mansion !

    So whilst the handover was a huge missed opportunity to promote democracy, sadly it was only ever likely to be so.

  • Yes, it’s a missed opportunity, but let’s not big up the role Britain could have played! Any quest for freedom and democracy must be homegrown, and it really wasn’t until the 1980s that Hong Kong’s society was stable enough to support democracy. It was just unfortunate timing that the 1980s was also the time when Britain had to decide to return Hong Kong to China (there was no other option; Hong Kong would have been indefensible). But the pro-democracy movement continues in Hong Kong. On every handover anniversary there is a large pro-democracy demonstration. Hong Kong still has a raucous and generally free press, the internet is uncensored, and many in the younger generation are politically aware. Not all hope is lost.

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