Can China be trusted?
In 1992-97, the last years that Hong Kong was a British colony, I was its governor. I endured round after round of difficult negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, over the protection of human rights and the development of the first stages of democracy in Hong Kong.
People often said to me, “At least once Beijing leaders reach an agreement, they stick to it.” I thought then that this view was probably based on faith rather than fact. And so it has clearly proved.
Hong Kong was never like Britain’s other colonies. Acquired after one of many Western interventions in China during the 19th century — which still understandably rankle the Chinese — the territory was picked up on a 99-year lease. The fact that the British did not take it in perpetuity was an attempt to help the enfeebled Qing dynasty save face.
After World War II, Britain’s other colonies were given independence and set — or so it was hoped, though with decreasing confidence — on the road to democracy. This was not always done with good grace, but by and large, Britain withdrew from empire without too much bloodshed or turbulence.
Soon, the only territory Britain still held was the trading outpost of Hong Kong, a successful free economy with a vibrant civil society and the rule of law — and a haven for people fleeing impoverishment and repression on mainland China after the communists came to power in 1949.
But Hong Kong lacked democracy. In the 1940s and ’50s, there were anxieties in both Britain’s Foreign Office and Hong Kong’s local administration. People were understandably worried that political arguments in Hong Kong would be dragged into the struggle between the communists and the Kuomintang on the mainland and in Taiwan.
China’s communist leaders warned Britain against passing democratic reforms in Hong Kong: It was anathema to encourage locals to think that they might be destined for an independent future as a nation state like Singapore.
The business community in Hong Kong also convinced British colonial authorities that the locals were not interested in politics; they just wanted to get on with business. I suppose it feared that elections might produce administrations keen on income redistribution.
So we British educated young Hong Kongers in their universities, encouraging them to read books about democracy and pluralism while telling them that these things were not for them.
As 1997 – the year Britain’s lease over the territory would run out – came over the horizon, the British and Chinese governments began discussing the terms under which Britain should hand sovereignty over Hong Kong back to Beijing.
In the early 1980s, China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, produced the “one country, two systems” formula: Hong Kong would return to the motherland but retain its autonomy and way of life. This position was then turned into a binding treaty between China and Britain, the Joint Declaration. The deal underlined the importance of beginning Hong Kong’s democratization.
When I arrived as governor in 1992, the pass had been largely sold on the pace of democracy. Limited changes were spelled out in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which had been adopted in 1990.
I tried to make the proposed electoral arrangements as fair and free as possible, for example by considerably extending, not the number of directly elected legislators, but the size of the electorate that could vote for them. Yet so far as the election of the chief executive, Hong Kong’s top position, was concerned, Beijing insisted on vetting all candidates for the post. A committee, largely of people handpicked by China, would then select a winner among them.
The last colonial government put in place as many defenses as possible to protect Hong Kong’s independent judiciary, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech and civil society. We passed legislation to protect Hong Kong’s pluralist society, in addition to very limited measures to make the city more democratic. This was pretty modest stuff. But it was enough to bring down on my head a torrent of abuse from Chinese Communist Party officials.
Back then, my greatest worry about Hong Kong’s prospects after 1997 was that it would simply become the richest city in China. I never feared that the Chinese Army would march in and run things itself.
Thanks to the people of Hong Kong — not least its young citizens — this has not happened. There is a real sense there of what Hong Kong’s citizenship means and of the interconnections between the rule of law, pluralism and prosperity.
At the same time, I have always thought it was extremely unwise to allow this feeling to morph into a campaign for independence. It would dilute support for democratic development in Hong Kong. And it would play into the hands of Beijing hard-liners.
Beijing, on the other hand, has never really understood Hong Kong’s way of life. It talks a lot about “one country, two systems,” without making much effort to understand Hong Kong’s system.
For a time after the handover, the worst that Beijing did was to push back against the very limited progress that had been made toward democracy. Instead of allowing people in Hong Kong to decide the arrangements for their elections – something which had been promised – the Chinese communists started taking the process into their own hands.
The government of President Xi Jinping of China has gone much further in recent years. Beijing’s office in Hong Kong interferes more and more with the administration of Hong Kong, which is supposed to be handled autonomously by locals.
There have been attacks on the independent judiciary and the rule of law. Beijing intervened in a court case against legislators-elect who advocate independence for Hong Kong. Local publishers who produced books critical of the Chinese leadership and a billionaire who seemed to know too much about corruption within the Chinese Communist Party were abducted. Universities and the media in Hong Kong have come under pressure from China supporters.
President Xi is in Hong Kong this weekend to swear in its new chief executive, Carrie Lam, a former government official, who was elected by just a few hundred local citizens. She is best known for refusing to have any dialogue with the pro-democracy protesters of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, while she was the No. 2 in the Hong Kong government.
Hong Kong is a small place, but its fate will loom large over the 21st century. For what happens there will answer the question: Can China be trusted?
Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, is the Chancellor of Oxford University.