Hong Kong: Twenty Years Later

On July 1, 1997, British and Chinese representatives attended the Hong Kong handover ceremony in Wan Chai. The assembly witnessed the transfer of the island’s sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the course of Sino-British diplomatic relations, the build-up to the transfer represented one of the most symbolic moments for the end of the British Empire. In addition, the historic events preceding the ceremonial change of power were rife with diplomatic challenges and complexities. Tensions ran high between nations of the East and West, all the while Hong Kong stood at the crossroads. It maintained a capitalist system of government, unfettered by the limits on speech, press, and business unlike the mainland. Yet, at the same time, the city also maintained ties with the PRC because of geographic proximity. In essence, the disputes and disagreements over the sovereignty of Hong Kong tested the relationship that the two nations, and ultimately the East and the West, would have with one another going forward.

In 1898, the Second Convention of Peking was signed between China, under the Qing dynasty, and Great Britain. Among several stipulations, the treaty granted the British government full jurisdiction of Hong Kong and an additional 200 surrounding islands “for the proper defence and protection of the Colony.” The document extended British rule after its victory in the earlier Opium Wars and the signing of China’s ‘unequal treaties.’ The British also sought to combat the German presence in the region, and thus the islands became valuable naval bases. Throughout the early- and mid-twentieth century, Hong Kong played a vital role for Britain in East Asia.

Talks of restoring Hong Kong back to China occurred in the 1980s. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led early discussions with Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang. She arrived in China on September 23, 1982, hoping to identify the goals of the PRC’s Communist Party in capitalist Hong Kong. Zhao expounded upon Chinese plans to regain sovereignty of Hong Kong, but he insisted that such actions would not affect Hong Kong’s economic prosperity. While Thatcher’s discussions with the Premier did not lead to any immediate tangible effects, she succeeded in creating an important framework for negotiations going forward. British business interests were at stake, and so it was imperative that Britain could offer Hong Kong territorially to China without cutting ties economically. Indeed, Hong Kong had been one of the most important financial centers in the world. According to meeting records, Thatcher assured the Executive Council of Hong Kong that the sovereignty of Hong Kong would be solved through “diplomatic channels,” as opposed to military means like those of the earlier Falkland War.

In December 1984, Thatcher returned to China to resume discussions with Zhao. Both sides negotiated a Sino-British Joint Declaration that permitted Hong Kong to retain its system of commerce and overall “life-style,” but with Chinese oversight in areas such as “foreign and defence affairs.” In effect, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the PRC. At the signing ceremony, Thatcher acknowledged the importance of securing Hong Kong’s “economic, financial and trade policies” as well as “familiar legal system.” The two countries agreed that Hong Kong would be allowed to continue to support a capitalist economy and ensured political freedom over the next 50 years under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle.

The agreement signaled an important diplomatic milestone between two countries who previously held bitter relations (embodied through the Amethyst Incident of 1949, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, and even at hesitance for PRC membership in the United Nations). However, some critics also cited the signing of the Joint Declaration as the cause of a “deep rift” between the two countries. Recent declassified documents on the 1984 talks revealed that the two delegations held staunchly opposing views over the formulation of Hong Kong’s constitution. The earlier visit of the a delegation from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), under British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, was “snubbed and humiliated” on Hong Kong television outlets. Deng Xiaoping, one of the leaders of the PRC, made it clear that “Chinese policy towards Hong Kong was unchangeable.” Moreover, notes from the FCO suggested that Deng was not helpful in talks over the drafting of the Basic Law in Hong Kong.

Under the premiership of John Major, the FCO continued discussions with Chinese leaders over the future of Hong Kong. Major visited Peking in September 1991 to meet Prime Minister Li Peng. The two leaders’ speeches echoed similar sentiments over having a smooth transition for “Hong Kong’s continuing prosperity and stability.” However, challenges again emerged under Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong from 1992 until the handover in 1997. He sought to introduce democratic electoral reforms to the Legislative Council, as well as to local and municipal councils. Chinese leaders pushed back against reforms, citing it as a violation of the Joint Declaration, and eventually instituted their own Provisional Legislative Council in 1996. The following year, at the expiration of Britain’s 99-year lease, the handover ceremony took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. At midnight, the British flag came down, and the flags of both China and Hong Kong were raised together.

Twenty years has passed since that ceremony. Often regarded as the end of the British Empire, the transfer of sovereignty marked a significant turning point in relations between East and West. Hong Kong ultimately became representative of the authoritative role that China wanted to hold over its neighboring countries. Premier Li Keqiang has reiterated his stance that any attempt at Hong Kong independence ‘”will lead nowhere.” Just two decades after the event, China has since expanded its position in the world, looking further to other countries in the West. For example, the nation has funneled tens of billions of dollars into the Caucasus, where it intends to maintain a geopolitical stake in the post-Soviet land. In the endeavor to integrate trade and economic development in Eurasia, the Chinese government has, according to one analyst, attempted to establish “a footing for state-owned infrastructure companies” and to gain access to “preferential custom zones with both the European Union and Russia.”

Just as nineteenth-century Britain maintained an imperial agenda over land in the East, it is now twenty-first-century China which seeks to attain power over areas in the West. The issue over Hong Kong independence and sovereignty has become indicative of the greater amount of influence the Chinese government intends to hold. An autonomous Hong Kong does not comply with China’s expansionary geopolitical strategy. But perhaps the more important question will not occur at the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer, but rather at the 50th, during which time China’s promise of maintaining “50 years” of Hong Kong’s “capitalist system” is set to expire. At that point, the manner of Chinese influence in the East and the West will become much clearer.

Image Credit: Margaret Thatcher Foundation

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