Letter: Hong Kong was no accident

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The Independent Online
HOW DID Hong Kong become a British colony? Not 'almost by accident', as Raymond Whitaker claimed (Inside Story, 21 March). The Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, intended, even before the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and China in November 1839, that an attempt should be made to obtain from China the cession of at least one island off the China coast. When a draft convention between Britain and China was agreed in January 1841, Palmerston rejected it because it did not demand enough from China. He complained that Hong Kong was just 'a barren island' and that full British sovereignty over it had not been conceded by China.

It is true that by the time a final settlement was agreed between Britain and China in 1842, the British Government was no longer interested in obtaining the cession of Hong Kong. There had been a change of government and Palmerston was no longer in office. But the cession of Hong Kong had been obtained before the new government had been able to alter the instructions to the British negotiators. Rather than make changes to the agreement, the new government decided to accept the treaty as it stood.

Before Chris Patten's appointment, Britain had often been too accommodating towards the Chinese government. But now there is a complete impasse in Sino- British relations from which neither side can retreat without disastrous loss of face. In 1997 Mr Patten will come home to Britain. It will be those he leaves behind in Hong Kong who will have to face the consequences of his actions.

Stephen G Haw

Kingham, Oxfordshire