AT THE RISK of simplifying to the point of caricature, the popular British view of Hong Kong's history emphasises two contrasting periods. The first is a 'swashbuckling' period, essentially the mid-to-late 19th century, when British behaviour towards China - war, annexation, opium - is freely acknowledged to have been barbarous by modern standards.

The second is a modern 'benign' period, post-1945, during which Britain sees itself as having discharged a wise and disinterested stewardship of the territory, nurturing development there in the interests of Hong Kong and China alike.

The first of those periods is nowadays relegated, in the British mind, to the more picturesque realms of history. It is on their record in the past three or four decades alone that the British expect to be judged. China, however, sees Hong Kong differently. And that clash of perspectives lies at the root of many of the more recent problems in Britain's and Hong Kong's relations with China.

For China's Communist leaders, the seizure of Hong Kong is neither 'dead' nor distant history. It is, on the contrary, the event cited by Karl Marx himself as the seminal moment in the emergence of modern China. Marx wrote, in his Revolution in China and Europe, that 'the English cannons in 1840 . . . broke down the authority of the Emperor, and forced the Celestial Empire into contact with the terrestrial world'. This, for Marx, was the 'contact' from which the dissolution of millennia-old imperial feudalism in China would inevitably follow.

In 1939, Mao Tse-tung followed Marx in listing the Opium Wars (through which Hong Kong was seized) as one of the 12 'historical landmarks' in the 'struggle by the Chinese people against imperialism and its lackeys'. To the present generation of Communist leaders brought up in that tradition, the return of Hong Kong is a great national cause, a historic wrong only now being righted. The British are still invaders and colonialists.

Deng Xiaoping was persuaded by the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, in 1984, that Britain wanted an honourable withdrawal from Hong Kong, and that the territory would be safe in British hands until 1997. With Deng's confidence briefly won, the Joint Declaration, fixing terms for China's resumption of Hong Kong, was signed.

China's suspicions returned when Britain began to talk in 1984 about introducing more democracy into Hong Kong's political system. China saw this as a scheme to endow Hong Kong with a degree of political self-determination. China replied with the unveiling of a doctrine called 'convergence', which in effect required Britain to reform Hong Kong's political system only in ways for which it had obtained China's approval.

China was enraged in 1989 by the Hong Kong government's refusal to halt the raising of large sums of money in Hong Kong to support the Peking demonstrators, and by huge pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong itself. China was equally angry with the gestures to boost the territory's morale after the Tiananmen massacre. These included calls by British MPs for full democracy, a plea by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir David (later Lord) Wilson, that full British nationality be restored to Hong Kong passport-holders, and the unveiling of plans for a vast new port and airport complex.

China ate its vengeance cold. It refused British proposals to talk about more democracy in Hong Kong. It wrote new restrictions on foreign passport-holders into its 'Basic Law' for post-1997 Hong Kong. It added provisions to the Basic Law giving Peking 'emergency' powers to impose martial law. And against the port and airport scheme, it began a guerrilla war which continues to this day.

When Chris Patten, the Governor, proposed more democracy for Hong Kong in his first policy speech, China responded with nothing short of ferocity. Should his proposals be enacted into law, China must be expected to work actively against the British Hong Kong government.

China has insisted on its willingness to put political considerations before economic ones, saying it would, in one diplomat's words, prefer absolute sovereignty over a 'wasteland' rather than make concessions towards self-determination.

Robert Cottrell's book, 'The End of Hong Kong', is published this month.

(Photograph omitted)

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