Did Margaret Thatcher gamble away Hong Kong?

Published 28.08.2019 00:05

"For Hong Kong protesters the choice is clear: Be violent and fail, or use peaceful pressure and succeed," those are the words of Ming Ming Chiu, a professor of analytics and diversity at the Education University of Hong Kong published Aug. 21 in the South China Morning Post. We shall return to that frank comment later but let us first revisit how Hong Kong became a special administrative region instead of staying on as a crown colony in the first place.

The year was 1985. Back then the Sino-British Joint Declaration went into force and many critics argued that late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher should have bargained harder with Beijing to guarantee the liberal future of Hong Kong; actually, negotiations, or at least the initial discussions, between both sides had started in the 1970s hence it was no spontaneous decision, far from it.

However, at the time there were few alternatives on the table: Either a structured return to mainland China or the risk of complete isolation or even an invasion should Britain decide to hang on after the 99-year lease was due to expire on June 30, 1997.

Hence a compromise of sorts became the focus of the international accord. For a period of 50 years, Hong Kong would keep its capitalist outlook and financial system in place as well as all civil liberties enjoyed under British rule with a high degree of autonomy. The buzzword of the day was "one country, two systems."

Coming back to the issue of hanging on, London could have had a chance to retain power over Hong Kong island and Kowloon, yet in any case would have had to cede power over the much bigger new territories nestled between communist China and Kowloon to the south.

However, Beijing would almost certainly have blocked any access to those two former parts of the colony and thus isolate it economically from the mainland and all overland trade routes. Even more relevant was the expected cutting off of all potable water and food supply chains from the mainland.

It thus became an accepted fact, albeit one that only set in years after the declaration entered into force that after all was said and done the compromise negotiated between London and Beijing at least aimed at guaranteeing freedom and a liberal political system for another generation, until July 1, 2047 as it stood. Pushing for a no agreement scenario would have put the future of Hong King at risk overnight – the Sino-British Joint Declaration from 1985 at least left room to maneuver, or so it seemed, which brings us straight to the eventful year of 2019.

Is the Basic Law not what it claims?

The day after the last British governor, Chris Patten, who had been in control for five years, left Hong Kong on July 1, 1997 the former colonial territory became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).

The Basic Law should guarantee the individual and collective freedoms and make sure that no socialist policies would be implemented for a period of five decades. A chief executive would become the head of government, and there would be a local legislature. One could argue that there had always been doubts about whether the Basic Law would be enough to keep Hong Kong on its proven track as a world financial and investment center as well as a tourism magnet. Yet, it took more than a decade and a half before serious concerns voiced in some political quarters turned into serious protests.

Five years ago, in 2014, a civic movement took to the streets to express their discontent with Beijing's plans to preselect future candidates for Hong Kong legislature. It was regarded as an indirect – and according to the declaration from 1985 and how a future basic law should look like – probably illegal influence over who should be allowed to stand for elected office in the former crown colony.

After months of protests, Beijing did not backtrack and even the chief executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region at the time stressed the importance of abiding by the rule of law; hence, overall what is now known as the

Umbrella Movement did not succeed.

"Did not succeed at first sight" might be better wording though, as today and 60 months thereafter another chief executive, Carrie Lam, resorted to exactly the same terminology when asked by media representatives only a few days ago about how she views the current and much bigger demonstrations and sit-ins; she also said the most important thing is the rule of law and that she is happy the city is governed according to that principle. But does this imply she would be siding with the protesters or calling them antipatriotic?

She for sure is trapped between a rock and hard place. Even with the Basic Law and officially no drastic changes in Hong Kong's way of life until the year 2047, Beijing is slowly but steadily preparing for nothing but that big day. Carrie Lam cannot risk an open confrontation with Beijing yet but does not want to be faced with extended periods of unrest and street protests either.

At stake in 2019 – extradition legislation

This summer has seen the largest mass protests against policies perceived as being orchestrated by Beijing: At stake an extradition bill allowing for indicted persons to be sent to mainland China and tried there.

Whereas the first wave of discontent focused on electoral issues, this second attempt at guaranteeing the full set of civil liberties as originally intended are all about human rights concerns, and fair and free trials. The ongoing sit-ins, blockades and manifestations have now received extra backup by the shocking revelation that for two weeks a of Chinese origin consular staff member of the British Consulate who visited mainland China on an official trip has not returned to Hong Kong and is supposed to having been detained by Chinese authorities while attempting to cross back into Hong Kong.

With election issues and human rights matters on the table, there could be a third wave of discontent and unrest coming Hong Kong's way in a few years and at that stage perhaps questioning the entire method of how Hong Kong is governed despite the status as a SAR. Needless to say, neither Beijing nor the chief executive and her loyal police forces would want such a confrontation to emerge. Not only Hong Kong's positive legacy and status would be at risk, also China's reputation overall. In a world of geopolitical uncertainties and tectonic shifts away from the traditional centers of power, even a post-communist China needs friends and allies and above all else trading partners.

So did Thatcher gamble away Hong Kong?

The answer in retrospect is a clear no. There were simply no alternatives to at least keeping the flag of democracy flying high for another 50 years. On everyone's mind today and 22 years into the status as a SAR, however, is whether China is really committed to honoring that very status.

It was expected that closer to the expiry date of the deal Beijing would start pushing for complete control, but there are another 28 years to go. Could it be that one day down the line Beijing will realize how precious Hong Kong as a true one-country, the two-systems model actually is for its global superpower standing? And could a massive civic movement with lasting potential help bring about such a scenario?

If what professor Ming Ming Chiu suggests is heeded by the masses, namely peaceful actions and assembling the majority of residents behind them instead of resorting to violence, chances are a peaceful solution can be found, especially if the vast majority of Hong Kong residents are convinced that defending their SAR status without risking an invasion makes sense. After all, even Chief Executive Carrie Lam wants to be remembered as someone who helped foster peace and democracy in her territory, not violence.

* Political analyst, journalist based in London

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