Question Time: Hong Kong: How did we get it? - What have we done with it? - Why will we lose it? - What will China do next? - And what do its people want? Ray Whittaker gives a plain person's guide to the colony

Ray Whittaker
Sunday 21 March 1993 01:02

Q. How did Hong Kong become a British colony?

A. Almost by accident. In 1841, China blockaded British merchants at Canton and confiscated their stocks of opium. Palmerston, then the Foreign Secretary, dispatched a British force under Admiral George Elliot. The orders were to get an apology from the Emperor and compensation for the merchants. The admiral was also supposed to secure Chinese agreement to open ports for trade; instead, he annexed Hong Kong Island, which British traders had long coveted. When Palmerston found out - seven months later - he sacked the admiral. By then, however, the British traders had taken root.

Sir Henry Pottinger, Elliot's successor, secured the trade agreement but he, too, disobeyed instructions, securing Hong Kong's cession. 'Every single hour I passed in this superb country,' he wrote, 'convinced me of the necessity and desirability of possessing such a settlement.' He became Hong Kong's first governor.

During the second Opium War, Britain added the Kowloon peninsula in 1860. In 1898, the New Territories were wrested from an increasingly feeble imperial court. But the Chinese argued that outright cession would provoke further demands for territory from Britain's European trading rivals. So Britain's representative, Sir Claude MacDonald, again disobeying orders, signed a 99-year lease instead.

As late as the 1970s, it was taken for granted that the expiry of the lease would be no more than a technicality. But Peking made it clear that it expected the return of the New Territories to Chinese control. The British had always accepted that, on their own, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island were too small to be self-sustaining. So, after initial resistance from the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, it was accepted that sovereignty over the entire territory would revert to China in 1997. But it took many months and thousands of diplomat-hours before Britain gave up attempts to stay in de facto control of Hong Kong after that date.

Q. Who lives in Hong Kong?

A. Just under six million people - a population 10 times what it was in 1945. The overwhelming majority were either born in China or have parents born there. In the immediate post-war years, the colony thrived on low-cost manufacturing, with waves of cheap labour constantly arriving from China. Now that kind of manufacturing has moved into China itself. Financial and business services have overtaken it in economic importance. Hong Kong is East Asia's main financial centre outside Japan, reaping wealth from the boom in China.

Q. How is the colony governed?

A. In almost the same way as it was in the 19th century. Chris Patten, the Governor, has the powers of an absolute monarch. He is advised by an Executive Council (Exco), consisting of the colony's chief civil servants and members of the business, financial and professional elite, appointed by the Governor. He also has a Legislative Council (Legco) which approves laws and the colony's budget. Until 1985, the Governor appointed all its 60 members. In the ensuing six years some of its members were indirectly elected by business and professional groups - the so-called 'functional constituencies' - and in 1991, for the first time in a century and a half, the people of Hong Kong were able to vote directly for some of their representatives. Nearly all the 18 Legco members elected were outspoken opponents of China.

Whatever the formal institutions, in practice Mr Patten's predecessors ran Hong Kong with very little consultation. Some barely took the trouble to keep Exco informed, but in a colony whose raison d'etre was business, no wise Governor ignored the interests of the 'hongs', or big trading houses. Legco was little more than a talking-shop, and the prevailing view of the elite was that 'Hong Kong people don't want democracy'. China, naturally, shares this view. It was entirely satisfied with the way Hong Kong was governed at the time negotiations on the handover began, and has regarded any changes since with the utmost suspicion.

Q. What have Britain and China agreed about the handover?

A. In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration established the principle of 'one country, two systems'. Britain would be responsible for the administration of Hong Kong until 30 June 1997, and China would 'give its co-operation in this connection'. After 1997, Hong Kong's capitalist economy and way of life - including its legal system - would remain unchanged for 50 years. The colony would become a 'special administrative region' within China, having 'a high degree of autonomy' in all matters save foreign affairs and defence. Peking would uphold an exhaustive list of rights and freedoms.

An annex includes China's intention to draw up a Basic Law, or 'mini-constitution' for running Hong Kong after 1997. China produced the Basic Law in 1990. Most of it consists of administrative arrangements aimed at continuing Hong Kong's political system after 1997, echoing the 1984 document. But in the wake of the suppression of China's 1989 democracy movement, it alarmed Hong Kong people by including a catch-all 'sedition' clause, giving the government powers to suppress dissent. To reassure them, Mr Patten is seeking to exploit a loophole in the Basic Law. It did not specify how the Legco which China would inherit should be elected; Mr Patten is trying to make it more effective.

Q. How democratic are Patten's proposals?

A. Not very. The Basic Law says the 'ultimate aim' is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by univeral suffrage, but China and Britain disagreed over the speed of achieving this. Peking would not sanction more than 20 directly-elected Legco seats at the next elections in 1995, two more than at present. Of the other 40, 30 will represent 'functional constituencies' and 10 will be elected by an electoral college. China expected this college to comprise local worthies it could manipulate. But the Governor proposed that these 10 members should be chosen by municipal councillors, elected for the first time next year. Mr Patten's proposals for new 'functional constituencies' have infuriated Peking even more. In the 21 existing constituencies, only 110,000 people are eligible to vote. Mr Patten proposes nine new constituencies, but this time, instead of giving the franchise to the bosses, everyone within an industry will be entitled to vote. Virtually all people with a job in Hong Kong will be represented - an electorate of about 2,700,000. Mr Patten insists that Legco must have the final say on his proposals. But even though it might amend them to please China, a Legco with a mind of its own is the last thing Peking wants.

Q. What do the people of Hong Kong think?

A. In principle, they support democratic reforms. In the 1991 elections, the United Democrats, a Western-style liberal party won big majorities. But Hong Kong people are frightened of China and they fear that Mr Patten's tactics could make things worse.

In an opinion poll, published by the South China Morning Post yesterday, Hong Kong citizens divide between one-third who think that Mr Patten was right to publish legislation last week to implement his proposals, one-third who think he was wrong and one-third who do not know. More people blame the Governor for the breakdown in relations with Peking than blame China - though the majority express no opinion.

Much of the opposition comes from the conservative business elite, who have already thrown in their lot with Peking. Others see Mr Patten's heroics as nothing more than 'gesture politics'.

Q. Has China got a case against Patten?

A. China's view is that, to keep within the spirit of the Joint Declaration, Britain should do nothing more than keep Hong Kong politically and economically stable until 1997. It says Britain has departed from this in two ways. First, it has tried to introduce more democracy to Hong Kong. Second, it has launched new economic projects that will commit Hong Kong's resources after 1997. The most important of these is a new airport at Chek Lap Kok. John Major had to fly to Peking in September 1990 to persuade the Chinese to cease their opposition to the airport, which was deterring investors. In exchange, he was forced to give China much more say in the project, control that Peking is now trying to extend to virtually every area of Hong Kong's capital spending.

In Britain's view, Peking has ignored its 1984 promise not to interfere in the administration of Hong Kong before 1997. As for preserving Hong Kong's way of life for half a century after it takes over, how much faith can be placed in such an undertaking from a regime which massacred thousands of its own citizens in 1989? Tiananmen has thrown into relief not only the nature of the colony's future masters, but Britain's failure to entrench democratic institutions there. It is trying to make amends. Hence the appointment of Mr Patten, and a new determination.

Q. How important is Hong Kong to China?

A. If, as has often been said, 'China could take Hong Kong with a telephone call', the question is why it has never done so. Given the secretiveness of the Peking regime, no satisfactory answer has been forthcoming, but it appears that Hong Kong's economic importance, not to mention the international shock which would have resulted from a seizure, have always prevailed. All the same, when Britain sought to open negotiations on Hong Kong's future, it soon discovered that the humiliations suffered from the Opium Wars onwards had survived more than a century. Whatever Hong Kong's economic importance to China, there was never any question of it remaining in foreign hands.

Q. What will actually happen in 1997?

A. Nobody knows. Some residents fear an immediate takeover by the People's Liberation Army, with orders to arrest anyone associated with the previous administration. That, however, would wreck Hong Kong's economy and render it a worthless prize. But if China's threats are carried out there will be no continuity in how Hong Kong is run after 1997.

The Basic Law provides, for example, that the Governor will be replaced by a Chief Executive, who must be a Hong Kong Chinese over 40 years old. And there are signs that senior civil servants are already distancing themselves from the present authorities. At least one leading candidate for the job of Chief Secretary, the senior civil service position from 1997, has 'resigned'.

Also, according to Chinese hints, Legco might be dissolved in 1997 and replaced by a parallel body. The present Legco might be allowed to remain in office until its term expires in 1999, but its members could be required to swear an oath of allegiance, forcing liberals to resign.

The only practical constraints on Chinese behaviour after 1997 will be those which exist now: Peking's desire to preserve harmony with the international community, on which it is dependent for trade, and Hong Kong's usefulness in serving those links.

Q. Will the present population stay there?

A. China will probably do its best to avoid frightening away the people needed to make Hong Kong work. Whether it understands how to do this remains to be seen.

Emigration has already increased from about 20,000 a year in the early 1980s to 30,000 in 1987 and about 60,000 in 1990 and 1991, with Canada and Australia the most popular destinations. Some return to Hong Kong after obtaining foreign passports, but increasingly the exodus consists of people who leave for good. A third of those who left in 1991 held professional and managerial jobs.

Those who argued that full British passports should have been given to the 3.25 million people in Hong Kong who had British dependent territory citizenship said that, far from encouraging them to flood into Britain, it would have given them the confidence to remain. Britain, however, was prepared to risk giving passports to only 50,000 key workers and their families. In 1997 there will be a top layer of 100,000 to 200,000 people in Hong Kong who can leave if life under the Chinese proves intolerable. But for the vast majority there will be no choice.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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