Hong Kong's history men go for rewrite

Former governor denies that he pushed China into resuming sovereignty of colony
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The Independent Online
The pungent odour of correction fluid is drifting over Hong Kong as those who made British policy in the last years of colonial rule scramble to rewrite history and, in particular, to deflect responsibility for anything that might go wrong.

Two months before the return to Chinese rule, those responsible for early talks which led to the end of British sovereignty are denying they pushed China towards taking over. First in line is former governor Lord MacLehose who, more than any other governor, was responsible for Hong Kong's return. This week he gave an interview to the South China Morning Post, claiming he was not responsible for making China take a stand on the return of Hong Kong during his meeting with China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, in 1979.

After remaining silent on the subject for six years, much of the interview was taken up by an attack on an article written by this reporter, published in 1991. That article revealed the clumsy manner in which Lord MacLehose and colleagues first raised Hong Kong's future.

Lord MacLehose, then the first governor to meet any senior Chinese leader, raised with Mr Deng the issue of commercial leases in the New Territories which were due to run out in 1997 along with the lease given for the greater part of Hong Kong's land-mass. He said investors were worried and intended to propose an arrangement be made for extending the commercial leases without raising the sovereignty issue.

No notice had been given to the Chinese that the issue was to be raised. Deng deliberately misunderstood the difference between the commercial leases and the treaty with Britain over the New Territories or was incensed by what he saw as a suggestion of denying China's sovereign right to Hong Kong. He launched into a monologue asserting China's right to resume control over Hong Kong, and laid down many of the conditions since set in stone.

Lord MacLehose now says: "It wasn't me who mentioned [the resumption of sovereignty] first; it was Deng Xiaoping." This is technically correct but avoids the issue of whether Britain forced China's hand.

A former Chinese official has also broken silence and indirectly confirmed the account of events in my 1991 report. Wong Man-fong, a former deputy secretary of China's de facto embassy in Hong Kong, told a seminar this month that until the meeting with Lord MacLehose "we thought of bypassing the 1997 issue by declaring Hong Kong an historic problem which the two governments would discuss at an appropriate time". China was thinking of "extending British rule for another 30 to 50 years" but "they didn't give us a way to step down".

In his interview Lord MacLehose says: "The amount ... written about that by people who know nothing about it is quite extraordinary." Since he now publicly denies the accuracy of my account, which was partly based on information which he gave me during an unattributable interview in 1991, he presumably no longer wishes to have his anonymity preserved. Moreover, his recollections then match those of three of the four other British and Hong Kong representatives at the meeting who were interviewed for the article at that time.

Lord MacLehose says he had to raise the leases issue because, if he had not discussed it, a legal vacuum would have ensued. This had been taken up by Sir Percy Cradock, the Foreign Office mandarin at the centre of Sino-British relations for two decades and who, more than his political masters, was responsible for policy which led to the handover of Hong Kong. He finished his governmental career as the prime minister's main foreign-policy adviser and in 1991 was responsible for pushing John Major into a position where Britain again found itself abasing itself before the Chinese leaders.

He made a secret mission to Peking to lay the ground for Mr Major's ill- fated visit in 1991, the first by a major Western leader after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The purpose was to clear the logjam over Hong Kong. In his memoirs Sir Percy hails this as a success.

But Mr Major was persuaded to make the trip against his better judgement. He appeared to be vindicated, because the logjam merely moved in another direction. China viewed the visit as a victory, as it signalled the end of diplomatic isolation which followed the Tiananmen crackdown.

Sir Percy is making a second career criticising Mr Major's appointed Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, for failing to assume Britain's customary kowtow position in dealings with China. His argument is that Mr Patten, fully backed by the Major government, caused unnecessary trouble by fiddling with plans to create more representative government. According to Sir Percy, if the old line had been adhered to, Hong Kong would be enjoying a smoother transition. This ignores the fact that the real deterioration in relations with China occurred during the governorship of one of Sir Percy's disciples, Lord Wilson, who was in charge at the time of Tiananmen. He could not help but reflect Hong Kong fears and concerns and was punished by China for doing so.

Fresh supplies of correction fluid will no doubt be arriving at the homes of other former British participants in the Hong Kong debacle in the months to come. Blame avoidance is clearly the order of the day.