For many years, a framed cover of The Spectator looked down, like a silent reproach, on the drinkers in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Its cartoon showed Britannia and the British lion on a barren rock, bent in a kowtow towards a distant, unseen overlord. The title read: Our Betrayal of Hong Kong. It was published when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and the Tiananmen Square massacre had just taken place in Beijing. The editorial, two whole pages of eloquent indictment, did not please the woman who had signed the Joint Declaration with China by which the rights of Hong Kong were to be guaranteed for fifty years after the handover in 1997.
There were, as we know, other things on her mind late in her premiership. But after the massacre, British policy shifted without fanfare to introduce more democracy to Hong Kong – a change that is still felt today. From Mrs Thatcher to John Major, Chris Patten and David Cameron, time and chance have landed Conservative politicians with decisions on the place. As millions of Hong Kongers march to defend their fragile way of life, it may fall to another Conservative prime minister to make hard choices about British values, British interests and the way we deal with China.
The Spectator cover, 10 June 1989: Our betrayal of Hong Kong
However, in the course of researching a book on Hong Kong, I have found that Mrs Thatcher, for one, had less cause for remorse than she may have thought. Indeed she may have set an example. About a year after watching Chris Patten and the Prince of Wales sail away in a storm on the royal yacht Britannia, I was browsing one afternoon in the Foreign Languages Bookstore in Beijing when a snappy new title caught my eye.
Mao Zedong on Diplomacy, published in 1998, contains official papers and transcripts from the “liberation” of China to late in Mao’s life. A light-hearted read it is not, until the last pages, in which the chairman greets an unctuous Edward Heath, then leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, for a chat about world affairs on May 25, 1974.
‘I cast my vote for you!’ declares Mao, ignoring an aide who asks if he is not afraid of offending Harold Wilson, the sitting Labour prime minister. Mao was on record as preferring conservatives, De Gaulle and Nixon among them, to liberals and socialists. No doubt he found something to admire in pragmatism tempered by ruthlessness.
He trusted Heath to send a message to the British government about Hong Kong. ‘We won’t discuss it at present,’ said Mao, ‘This will be the business of the younger generation.’ Heath was back eight years later. This time he met Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, and inquired again about the colony. ‘How could we face our ancestors and the Chinese people if we did not take it back?’ said Deng, according to a memoir by a senior Chinese official. It landed in Mrs Thatcher’s in-tray just after the Falklands War. Britain’s lease on the New Territories ran out in 1997 and the Foreign Office pressed her to make a deal.
She did so, but it troubled her for the rest of her life to see millions of British subjects handed over to a Communist dictatorship. Yet her resolve may have got them a better future than Deng ever intended to grant.
We knew that her meeting with Deng in September 1982 was grim. ‘A tiny man who radiated power,’ says a British official who advised her. Deng dismissed the 19th-Century treaties granting Hong Kong Island and part of the Kowloon peninsula to Britain in perpetuity. She was shocked. Deng said he could take Hong Kong in an afternoon. He chain-smoked and spat. But I did not know that when Mrs Thatcher steadied and held her ground, the Chinese leader had private cause for doubt. Memoirs by Chinese officials and Communist Party histories – all laudatory of their own wisdom, of course – show that her firmness changed Deng’s political calculations.
The People’s Liberation Army had a plan for invading Hong Kong, on the shelf since the Cultural Revolution. But Deng knew the PLA had come off badly in a brawl with Vietnam. Plus, China had no friends. Deng still feared the USSR. He had to do economic reform, so he needed the United States. Perhaps, the Chinese leader thought, this difficult woman might actually make a fight of it. One never knew.
She tripped and fell down the steps as she left the Great Hall of the People. But her hosts, being cautious, did not broadcast the scene on state television. Mrs Thatcher had bought time for Hong Kong. The Prime Minister harried her diplomats at every turn. The Joint Declaration, which set up the “One Country Two Systems” formula for Hong Kong, was sealed in 1984. She flew off to sign it with her foreign policy adviser, Sir Percy Cradock, whose memoir has them reciting Tennyson on board the RAF VC10: ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.’
Those who deal with China know that the signature of a pact is often just the beginning of the real negotiations. After Tiananmen, Chris Patten stole this old Chinese technique, kept a straight face and, with John Major’s backing, brought in a democratic vote for Hong Kong.
‘He didn’t do it for Hong Kong, he did it to salve Britain’s conscience,’ said Emily Lau, a veteran Democratic politician. Maybe so. The Patten reforms were abolished as soon as the British had gone. But the only question about China’s word was how subtly and swiftly it would be broken. The conflict is one between rule by an elite and government by the people. The latest battle, over an extradition bill that would send hapless suspects to Chinese courts, is but one round in a long game.
I am not trying to stretch a point here, but sometimes Britain has more influence against overwhelming odds than its officials believe. Both Mrs Thatcher and John Major played a weak hand with skill because, as the Chinese do, they put politics above diplomacy.
It is easy to forget today that the destiny of Hong Kong was once one of those matters, like the fate of white settlers in Africa, which exercised the Conservative Party’s best and worst instincts. Commerce, immigration, Britain’s reputation and the balance of power all tugged at policy-makers, who were watched by a stalwart awkward squad of MPs.
At the last mass protests in 2014, the Chinese ambassador to Britain was so worried about parliamentary opinion that he advised his masters to ban the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee from visiting Hong Kong. Its members duly hauled in the Foreign Office minister of the day, the ever-courteous Hugo Swire, who told them this was ‘regrettable.’ The MPs called the Foreign Office ‘weak.’ Their chairman said Beijing clearly thought that the Joint Declaration was a dead letter. ‘The fact that China has reneged on that treaty – there is no other way of putting it – has repercussions for both sides,’ said John Baron, a Tory MP.
At the time David Cameron and George Osborne were leading us into a “Golden Era” of ties with China. That was then. Now we know that Xi Jinping is leading China into a dark age. The Americans have stopped pretending that “engagement” with his regime works. Their strategists are in thrall to Thucydides, who wrote in his history of fifth-century Greece that a rising power is bound to challenge the status quo. On trade, defence, Huawei or spies, the new American policy is bipartisan. It began before Donald Trump and it will go on after him.
Britain still has a place in China due to history and commerce but the idea that we can play some sort of privileged role in this clash of great powers is absurd. The next prime minister may be a man who knows his Thucydides. He can also draw on the experience of his predecessors. It shows that to stand up to China and to stand with the United States is the right thing to do if we mean to defend our legacy, outlast Xi Jinping’s regime and protect British interests.
This week the Foreign Office affirmed that the Joint Declaration was still valid, banned sales of riot gear and called for an inquiry into the policing of the protests. That was a start. But Britain must keep its resolve in the face of the blandishments and blackmail that are certain to come. Anything else really would be Our Betrayal of Hong Kong.
Michael Sheridan’s book on Hong Kong, The Mirror, is to be published by Harper Collins in 2021. He was Far East Correspondent of The Sunday Times for two decades and covered the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.