Yet nothing became Britain's relationship with Hong Kong, today's official line goes, like the ending of it. 'The pearl in the dragon's mouth', as travelogues call Hong Kong, could have been swallowed at a gulp. Instead, the survival of this glittering symbol of capitalism has been guaranteed under Communist ownership. Hong Kong will retain a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years. The territory, to quote Robert Cottrell, will be preserved as 'the ultimate Made-in-Hong-Kong object'.
In this accomplished study of the process which produced the Sino-British treaty in 1984, Cottrell does much to undermine the smug Foreign Office account. His book is exceptionally well written and well informed. With unusual fastidiousness he even puts inverted commas around cliches such as 'window of opportunity' - a hint perhaps that bona fide users merit defenestration. And he guides the reader clearly through clandestine diplomacy as intricate as a Chinese puzzle.
No one believed in secret covenants secretly arrived at more than Margaret Thatcher. But she began discussions with Deng Xiaoping (who throughout made generous use of the Great Hall of the People's spittoon) in a state of post-Falklands euphoria and subsequently told journalists of her wish to hang on to Hong Kong. The prospect of a struggle with China caused economic turmoil in the territory and the Hang Seng index fell by 25 per cent. 'Seldom in British colonial history,' wrote one commentator, 'was so much damage done to the interests of so many people in such a short space of time by a single person.'
The new Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, proved more tactful. He executed a skilful U-turn on the issue of sovereignty and established cordial relations with the Chinese. But he could achieve only minor modifications to Deng's original position, which was summed up in the slogan 'One Country, Two Systems'. Reaching the final accord was a tortuous and, even when related by Cottrell, a tedious business. But considering that Deng could have 'taken Hong Kong with a telephone call', Sir Geoffrey got the best deal possible.
Nevertheless - and Cottrell might have made the point more trenchantly - the settlement is a lamentable one for Hong Kong's people. They are being handed over, without consultation, to a regime which demonstrated its true nature in Tiananmen Square. Worse still, racist immigration laws prevent them from finding sanctuary here. The territory has always been denied self-determination, yet at the last moment Chris Patten conjures up a pious illusion of democracy that cannot be realised.
Britain was quick to clothe the naked greed which inspired the occupation of Hong Kong in cant about the mother country's moral responsibilities towards her far-flung subjects. So the Government will hardly admit to betraying them now. It is appropriate that this imperial saga should end on an insistent note of deceit.Reuse content