A breach of the Prince's trust? Charles and the great Chinese takeaway

The year was 1997 and Britain had just handed Hong Kong back to China. As the heir to the throne flew back to the UK, he spent much of the journey describing this historic event in his journal... Cahal Milmo and Terri Judd report

Thursday 23 February 2006 01:00

To the Beijing government it was "the return of Hong Kong to the Motherland". For the heir to the British throne, in one of his more candid moments, it was "the Great Chinese Takeaway".

The transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China on a sultry night in 1997 represented the surrender of the last meaningful vestige of Britain's faded colonial power to the emerging economic supremacy of an Asian superpower.

And the Prince of Wales, the representative of once-imperial Britain and its monarchy, made clear his discomfort at the passing of British rule, established in 1841 during the Opium Wars, no matter how much pomp and circumstance accompanied it.

After a tortuous political process begun in 1979, Britain agreed to cede control of the islands at one minute past midnight on 1 July 1997. The ceremony took place in the cavernous Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre with the Union flag and the flag of the colony being symbolically replaced with those of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Area and China.

Prince Charles flew out to the Far East accompanied by assorted dignitaries to witness the handover alongside Chris Patten, Britain's last governor of Hong Kong. On the return flight, the Prince took the opportunity of a few spare hours mid-air to write a 3,000-word account of the event, entitled "The Handover of Hong Kong, or The Great Chinese Takeaway". It was peppered with indiscreet views from start to finish.

He described how, on the outward journey, his British Airways 747 took off with a large party of British official representatives on board. The Prince and his staff found themselves "on the top deck in what is normally club class". He added: "It took me some time to realise that this was not first class(!) although it puzzled me as to why the seat seemed so uncomfortable."

He then discovered that other dignitaries, including Edward Heath, Douglas Hurd, "the new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook", several former governors of Hong Kong, Lord Wilson and the then leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, Paddy Ashdown, were all "ensconced in First Class immediately below us".

"Such is the end of Empire, I sighed to myself."

His journal also described how he landed in a hot and humid Hong Kong and was "delivered" to the Royal Yacht Britannia, tied up alongside the old naval base close to the Prince of Wales building which "I must have named in the 1980s". Following in brackets is this remark: " Goodness only knows what the Chinese would have renamed it by now".

The Prince related how it felt wonderful to be aboard Britannia but this was "tinged with an overwhelming sadness" as this was to be the last time he would stay on Britannia on an overseas visit because the yacht was being "ex-commissioned". There was "a kind of exasperated sadness experienced by all and sundry" about the decision, wrote Charles, and he quoted Madeleine Albright, the US Defence Secretary at the time, as asking: "Why is this happening?"

Charles added: "The PM and Mrs Blair came on board for an hour and seemed suitably impressed after the whistle-stop tour around the ship. If only he could have seen the yacht with the receptions and dinners under way and heard people's reactions.

He said the Prime Minister spent just 14 hours in Hong Kong.

In a general comment on the Downing Street entourage, he remarked: " They are all in such a hurry, so never really learn about anything. They then take decisions based on market research and focus groups, on the papers produced by political advisers and civil servants - none of whom will have ever experienced what it is they are taking decisions about."

He said that at another reception aboard Britannia, everyone he spoke to was being "thoroughly optimistic" about the future for Hong Kong.

"But in the background was the sneaking worry about creeping corruption and the gradual undermining of Hong Kong's greatest asset - the rule of law."

He said the Chinese Army was another concern because they were paid so badly there might be "irresistible temptations to intimidate or threaten local people when the soldiers discover that a glass of beer costs about as much as their weekly salary".

He said the Chinese Army was apparently known to carry out corrupt practices and added: "One can only hope they are confined to barracks in Hong Kong."

At another dinner aboard the yacht, he said Ms Albright was "good value - seemed to be well disposed towards the UK. We had a good talk about Islam and about the unhelpful US attitude to global warming at the New York summit earlier in the month."

Of Mr Blair, he said: "He is a most enjoyable person to talk to - perhaps partly due to his being younger than me. He also gives the impression of listening to what one says, which I find astonishing. He understands only too well the identity problem that Britain has with the loss of an empire and the inability to know what to do next. Introspection, cynicism and criticism seem to have become the order of the day and clearly he recognises the need to find ways of overcoming the apathy and loss of self-belief by finding a fresh national direction.''

He also referred to Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, coming on board Britannia and looking "incredibly sad". Speaking of his "moving speech" later, the Prince said: "I ended up with a lump in my throat and was then completely finished off by the playing of Elgar's Nimrod Variations [the Enigma Variations] immediately afterwards."

The Prince returned to the Royal Yacht for a bath after the speech and then attended an enormous banquet for 4,000 people at the Convention Centre. "I sat next to the Chinese Foreign Minister who must have had considerable difficulty knowing what to make of me," he reported. "After a lot of toasting we left the dinner and just waited around until we could go through the ridiculous rigmarole of meeting the Chinese President Jiang Zemin without loss of face to either side."

The Prince made a further reference to the President and "his cronies" in his description of the handover dinner that followed. "For the handover this hall had been transformed into a kind of Great Hall Of The People of Peking," he said.

"The President read a prepared statement. I could see I had no escape from reply so I desperately tried to think what I could say without causing incident. After my speech the President detached himself from the group of appalling old waxworks who accompanied him and took his place at the lectern.

"He then gave a kind of propaganda speech which was loudly cheered by the bussed-in party faithful at the suitable moment in the text. At the end of this awful Soviet-style display we had to watch the Chinese soldiers goose-step on to the stage and haul down the Union Jack and raise the Chinese flag." The "ultimate horror", he said, was the artificial way in which the flags were made to flutter enticingly.

"The ceremony ended with us all being photographed in a group, shaking hands and marching off through different doors. Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate, and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested ..."

Later, while on board Britannia, he recalled: "I stood on the deck gazing at the departing skyline of Hong Kong and telling myself perhaps it is good for the soul to have to say goodbye and (to) the dear yacht in the same year. Perhaps ..."

The Prince noted that the handover was part of the biggest Royal Navy deployment of ships in the Far East for several years. He added that they had been harassed by the Chinese Navy and overflown by Flanker aircraft in the South China Sea. Britannia had even followed by a Chinese patrol craft.

"The whole business was drearily reminiscent of the Soviets and their behaviour when I was in the Royal Navy over 20 years previously."

He continued: "I only hope the British can maintain their presence in the area by frequent naval task groups and deployments. Apart from anything else, I believe we should be exploring every possible way of maximising and exploiting our military skills and, above all, marketing them in today's world of market economies and globalisation.

"It would be an utter tragedy and a dreadful waste to squander more than 300 years of accumulated expertise."

Charles's views on Blair, Elgar and 'appalling old waxworks'


'It puzzled me as to why the seat was so uncomfortable. Such is the end of Empire, I sighed to myself'


'They are all in such a hurry, so never really learn about anything. They take decisions based on market research and focus groups'


'He is a most enjoyable person to talk to. He gives the impression of listening to what one says, which I find astonishing'


'The President detached himself from the group of appalling old waxworks who accompanied him'


'I ended up with a lump in my throat and was completely finished off by the playing of Elgar's Nimrod Variations'

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