Britain botched the handover of Hong Kong – a better outcome for its people was possible

“Thanks in part to (Lord) Chris Patten’s governorship of Hong Kong, Britain left Chinese shores on a moral high in 1997.”

The quote above is from an article about China by Matthew Parris in The Times.

I lived in Hong Kong for four years in the 1980s, have revisited it many times since and have many HK friends. These friends liked Patten but they all knew that he had received a hospital pass. The damage had long since been done. He made little difference as the “Last Governor “. His hands were tied by what went before. There was no “moral high” – the abandonment of Hong Kong’s people was an amoral act . Period.

Hong Kong

Throughout its long history as a British colony Hong Kong was a benevolent (mostly) dictatorship. Democracy was absent and power was firmly in the hands of an appointed and unelected cabal – mostly British ex-patriates. Knowing that the New Territories would have to be handed to China in 1997 Britain could have changed the governance structure of the colony well in advance – in the 1960s for example. If Hong Kong had become largely self-governing by say) 1970 the negotiations with China that had to take place in the run up to 1997 would have been held in a very different context.

Hong Kong as a clone of Singapore was a very viable proposition. Sovereignty would be in Peking but Hong Kong would have been run by Hong Kong people. Not by the British colonialists but not by China’s authoritarian gerontocracy either.

When you are dealing with dictators it helps to carry a big stick. Militarily of course Britain could not compete with the PRC . But we were not without assets. Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were British in perpetuity under international law. This was a hand played badly in the negotiations and if the colony had been self-governing and effectively independent in the early 1980s the outcome would have been very different.

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