Hong Kong’s return to China – 20 years on

One country, two systems – but one sovereign state.

Proletarian writers

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The Chinese flag is raised by People's Liberation Army soldiers to signal Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule, in Hong Kong, 1 July 1997.

Proletarian writers

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The first of July this year marked the 20th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in Hong Kong and the resumption of the exercise of Chinese sovereignty over the territory by the People’s Republic. The anniversary saw spectacular celebrations in Hong Kong, as well as by Chinese people around the world, highlighted by the visit there by China’s leader Xi Jinping, his first since he assumed his country’s top posts as general secretary of the Communist Party of China, president of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the central military commission.

To understand why the Chinese people attach such importance to this anniversary, and why they so strongly resent and reject Britain’s continued insolent attempts to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs, it is necessary briefly to look at the history of how Hong Kong came to be colonised in the first place. Like other such great crimes of British imperialism, such as the colonisation of Ireland and India and the transatlantic slave trade, it is a history of violence, exploitation, duplicity and hypocrisy.

Hong Kong island became a British colony after the first opium war (1839-42), itself the culmination of more than a century of British aggression against China.

In 1711, the British East India Company established a trading post in Guangzhou, southern China, to trade tea for silver. In 1700, Britain imported 32,000 kilos of tea; by 1800, the figure had reached almost 7 million kilos.

British traders had been selling huge amounts of opium, grown in British-ruled India, to pay for this growing commerce in tea, despite Chinese objections. Opium exports grew from 15 tons in 1730 to nearly 1,400 tons a year by 1838. By then, opium accounted for 75 percent of all Chinese imports measured in cash. When Chinese officials confiscated 20,000 chests of opium and destroyed them, Britain launched a three-year war against China.

The Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking) opened the ports of Guangzhou (Canton), Shanghai, Xiamen (Amoy), Ningbo and Fuzhou (Foochow) for British merchants to trade without hindrance. The Chinese were forced to pay for all the opium destroyed, all money owed by Chinese merchants to British drug traders and to compensate Britain for the cost of the war. These reparations totalled 21 million silver dollars, a colossal sum in those days.

The treaty also ceded the island of Hong Kong in perpetuity to the British crown.

A second supplementary treaty in 1843 allowed for British citizens to be exempt from Chinese law. In the 20 years from 1840 to 1860, Indian opium imports tripled, from 20,000 to 60,000 chests.

Antagonism toward the European colonialists led to clashes that erupted in 1856 into the second opium war. An Anglo-French alliance captured Guangzhou and marched on Beijing (Peking). The Qing dynasty sued for peace and signed the Treaty of Tianjin (Tientsin).

However, this concession was not enough for the colonial powers, and the British envoy Lord Elgin’s forces ransacked the magnificent Old Summer Palace in Beijing; 3,500 British troops razed it and looted it for three days, while peace negotiations were going on.

The Treaty of Tianjin was finally ratified in Beijing in 1860, ending the war, legalising the opium trade and conceding the territory of Kowloon to the British, also in perpetuity.

The third piece of Chinese territory to be incorporated into British-ruled Hong Kong was the New Territories, a mostly rural collection of villages on the mainland and some significant islands such as Lantau. Following China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895), the British forced the weakened Qing dynasty to conclude the Second Convention of Peking, which gave the New Territories to British-ruled Hong Kong. Unlike the ‘agreements’ on Hong Kong island and Kowloon, the terms here were for a 99-year lease, rent free.

It is important to note that the People’s Republic of China, established as a result of the victorious Chinese revolution on 1 October 1949, never recognised the legality or validity of any of the unequal treaties that the formerly semi-colonial and semi-feudal China had been forced into by the imperialist powers. With the lease on the New Territories set to expire in 1997, the governments of Britain and China entered into negotiations regarding the future of Hong Kong from the early 1980s.

As with other aspects of Britain’s long and inglorious retreat from empire, the facts refute the jingoistic myth of Britain’s rulers cheerfully waving farewell to erstwhile and grateful colonial subjects. As elsewhere, the British ruling class fought tooth and nail to hang on. They were forced to retreat solely by the strength and determination of socialist China and the Chinese people.

At the start of the negotiations, then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was pumped up with arrogance following her defeat of the Argentine military junta and the retaking of Argentina’s Malvinas (Falkland) Islands. This led then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly to observe: “Mrs Thatcher is very mistaken if she thinks that Hong Kong is the Malvinas or that we are Argentina.”

British government papers, declassified in 2013, reveal fraught negotiations with China before a 1984 agreement and fears that the talks would collapse altogether.

Britain’s ambassador to China, Sir Percy Cradock, slated the country’s leaders as an “incorrigible and ineducable” group who were “blinkered by dogma and national pride”. China’s negotiators correctly observed that their British counterparts had a “colonialist and imperialist attitude”, which was “outmoded, lacking in reality and would get nowhere”.

The files show how strongly Thatcher believed during the early stages of the negotiations that continued British administration of Hong Kong after 1997 was feasible.

Negotiations on Hong Kong’s future began in September 1982 when Thatcher met Chinese leaders in Beijing. She told then premier Zhao Ziyang that China’s proposals for Hong Kong to become a largely self-governing special administrative zone of China – essentially the ‘one country, two systems’ framework in effect today – would be “disastrous” for investor confidence and lead to its collapse as a financial centre.

She continued that “there would certainly be a wholesale flight of capital from Hong Kong” and that “this money, having left Hong Kong, would not return”. Thatcher concluded: “We believe that that plan would lead to the collapse of Hong Kong as a financial centre.”

Thatcher therefore proposed that Britain continue administering Hong Kong after 1997 under Chinese ‘sovereignty’. She said: “Confidence in Hong Kong, and thus its continued prosperity, depend on British administration.”

Naturally this was rejected by China. Zhao is recorded in the British minutes of the meeting as responding: “China would not let others administer Hong Kong on its behalf nor place Hong Kong under the trusteeship of others.”

Thatcher initially refused to alter her position and negotiations stalled. On one paper prepared for her in February 1983 by the foreign office suggesting alternative negotiating stances, a scribbled note signed ‘MT’ stated: “This paper is pathetic – it is a recipe for a sell-out.”

Thatcher even requested from her civil servants an assessment of the military capability to defend Hong Kong should China seek to reclaim the territory by military means. Their findings could not have made for comfortable reading by the ‘Iron Lady’: “The [Hong Kong] garrison could deal with a small-scale incursion but would be limited to establishing the facts of any large-scale attack.” In plain English, they would be smashed by the People’s Liberation Army.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post commented: “The British prime minister believed China could be persuaded to let British administration continue in return for gaining sovereignty over all of Hong Kong. Under the 19th century treaties between Britain and China, Thatcher argued Hong Kong Island and Kowloon could remain British. The New Territories were ceded to Britain in a lease which expired in 1997.

“But China did not recognise these treaties and demanded the return of all of Hong Kong in 1997. Substantive negotiations resumed in the summer of 1983 but tensions remained high.

“Zhou Nan, one of China’s negotiators, said Britain’s attempt to continue administering Hong Kong after 1997 reflected ‘a colonialist and imperialist attitude [which] was outmoded, lacking in reality and would get nowhere with the Chinese government or people’. Zhou added: ‘If British administration was so good why had so many people in former British colonies fought for independence?’

“Cradock was highly critical of China’s leaders in a dispatch to London. He wrote: ‘The Chinese leaders are incorrigible and ineducable, otherwise they would not be where they are.’ He added: ‘They are elderly men with rigid views, blinkered by dogma and national pride and deeply ignorant of how a place like Hong Kong works.’”

Ironically, Cradock was later to clash bitterly with Chris Patten, the last colonial governor, having come to believe his publicly provocative stand against China to be against the long-term interests and prospects of British imperialism in the region. For this, he was excoriated by Patten and even accused of being a friend of China!

Indeed, Cradock may have been an imperialist scoundrel, but he was certainly no fool. In August 1983 he cabled London: “We should ponder now whether there is anything short of our present demand for the continuity of British administration intact which would be sufficient to avoid a collapse of confidence in Hong Kong.” He added: “It is quite plain that we shall not achieve our ideal solution.”

Negotiations continued but Britain became concerned that China might abandon the talks. In November Geoffrey Howe, then foreign secretary, briefed senior cabinet colleagues including Thatcher that the outlook for the talks was “bleak”. If Britain continued to push for the right to administer Hong Kong, “there was a risk that the Chinese might break off the negotiations [which] could well precipitate a breakdown of confidence in Hong Kong”, according to the minutes of the meeting.

By December, Thatcher had softened her position and Britain’s negotiations with China that month took place in an “improved atmosphere”. Following this round of talks between China and Britain, Howe briefed senior cabinet colleagues that future negotiations would have to be “on the basis of the Chinese proposals”, with the aim of making them “more acceptable and workable”, the minutes reveal.

But given Britain’s weak negotiating stance, Howe raised the question of whether they should withdraw from the negotiations: “While British comments could be expected to have some impact on the Chinese proposals, there was no certainty that the outcome would be subject to agreement with the UK. It was therefore necessary to consider whether the present strategy should be continued or the talks broken off.”

During subsequent discussion at this briefing, numerous future scenarios were discussed. The minutes record: “the point was made that there was no prospect of reaching an agreement with the Chinese which could be commended to [the British] Parliament”. The possibility was also raised that negotiations with China may produce no agreement at all. If that happened the minutes recorded: “It was by no means clear that [China] would be prepared simply to wait until the [New Territories] lease expired.”

They feared that if Deng Xiaoping “could not reach an agreement with the British government which was satisfactory to him, he might decide upon an early takeover of Hong Kong”. (See Hard-fought Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong revealed in declassified files – Declassified files show how strongly Thatcher team believed British rule could continue, and its fears Chinese takeaway could pre-empt handover, South China Morning Post, 18 August 2013)

Armed with this background, it is useful to revisit some of the remarks made by Deng Xiaoping in his conversation with Margaret Thatcher in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on 24 September 1982 at the start of the negotiations:

“Our basic position on the question of Hong Kong is clear. There are three major issues involved. One is sovereignty. Another is the way in which China will administer Hong Kong so as to maintain its prosperity after 1997. And still another is the need for the Chinese and British governments to hold appropriate discussions on ways to avoid major disturbances in Hong Kong during the 15 years between now and 1997.

“On the question of sovereignty, China has no room for manoeuvre. To be frank, the question is not open to discussion. The time is ripe for making it unequivocally clear that China will recover Hong Kong in 1997. That is to say, China will recover not only the New Territories but also Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It must be on that understanding that China and the United Kingdom hold talks on the ways and means of settling the Hong Kong question.

“If China failed to recover Hong Kong in 1997, when the People’s Republic will have been established for 48 years, no Chinese leaders or government would be able to justify themselves for that failure before the Chinese people or before the people of the world. It would mean that the present Chinese government was just like the government of the late Qing dynasty …

“We have waited for 33 years, and if we add another 15 years, that will make 48. We are able to wait for such a long time because we enjoy the full confidence of the people. But if we failed to recover Hong Kong in 15 years, the people would no longer have reason to trust us, and any Chinese government would have no alternative but to step down and voluntarily leave the political stage. Therefore, at this time – I don’t mean today, of course, but in no more than one or two years – China will officially announce its decision to recover Hong Kong. We can wait another year or two, but definitely not longer.

“In a broad sense, China’s announcement of this policy decision will be beneficial to Britain too, because it will mean that 1997 will mark the end of the era of British colonial rule, and that will be welcomed by world public opinion …

“As to the assertion that once China declares its decision to recover Hong Kong in 1997 there will be disturbances there, I believe that while minor disturbances are inevitable, major ones can be avoided if China and Britain approach the question in a cooperative spirit. I also want to tell Madam that when the Chinese government made this policy decision, it took all eventualities into account.

“We even considered the possibility of something we would hate to see happen – that is, we considered what we should do if serious disturbances occurred in Hong Kong during the 15-year transition period. The Chinese government would then be compelled to reconsider the timing and manner of the recovery. If the announcement of the recovery of Hong Kong has, as Madam put it, ‘a disastrous effect’, we shall face that disaster squarely and make a new policy decision.” (Our basic position on the question of Hong Kong by Deng Xiaoping, 24 September 1982)

Two years later, in talks on successive days with visitors from Hong Kong, Deng stated:

“We should have faith in the Chinese of Hong Kong, who are quite capable of administering their own affairs. The notion that Chinese cannot manage Hong Kong affairs satisfactorily is a leftover from the old colonial mentality.

“For more than a century after the Opium War, the Chinese people were looked down upon and humiliated by foreigners. But China’s image has changed since the founding of the People’s Republic. The modern image of China was not created by the government of the late Qing dynasty, nor by the northern warlords, nor by Chiang Kai-shek and his son. It is the People’s Republic of China that has changed China’s image.

“All Chinese have at the very least a sense of pride in the Chinese nation, no matter what clothes they wear or what political stand they take. The Chinese in Hong Kong share this sense of national pride. They have the ability to run the affairs of Hong Kong well and they should be confident of that.

“The prosperity of Hong Kong has been achieved mainly by Hong Kong residents, most of whom are Chinese. Chinese are no less intelligent than foreigners and are by no means less talented. It is not true that only foreigners can be good administrators. We Chinese are just as capable. The view that the people of Hong Kong lack self-confidence is not really shared by the people of Hong Kong themselves.” (One country two systems by Deng Xiaoping, 23 June 1984)

Developments over the last 20 years in Hong Kong, since it returned to its motherland, have more than confirmed Deng’s words. Yet despite the inexorable decline of moribund British imperialism and the exponential growth of China’s economic strength and global footprint, as with revolutionary Zimbabwe and other countries, the British ruling class loses no opportunity to continue trying to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Thus, on the eve of the 20th anniversary, rather than hang his head in shame, as well he might, Britain’s buffoonish Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson bleated: “As we look to the future, Britain hopes that Hong Kong will make more progress toward a fully democratic and accountable system of government.” (It should hardly need to be said that this was never on the agenda in over a century of British colonial rule.)

He said it was “vital” to Hong Kong’s continued success that its “high degree of autonomy and rule of law are preserved”.

This promptly drew a withering response from Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang, who attacked Johnson’s comment as “incorrect” and “misplaced”. “Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, and therefore Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs,” Lu said.

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, Lu added that Hong Kong’s success “had already been proven during the 20 years since its return to China, and outsiders should not make incorrect remarks regarding that”.

Lu added that the joint declaration, the 1984 Sino-British deal that secured Britain’s departure from Hong Kong and enshrined the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ for 50 years from 1997, had no binding force.

“Since Hong Kong returned to the motherland 20 years ago, the declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance nor any binding force on the central government’s administration of Hong Kong,” Lu said.

Britain was quick to react. According to Reuters, a foreign office spokeswoman said: “The Sino-British joint declaration remains as valid today as it did when it was signed over 30 years ago.

“It is a legally binding treaty, registered with the UN, and continues to be in force. As a co-signatory, the UK government is committed to monitoring its implementation closely.” (See China attacks Boris Johnson over ‘incorrect’ views on Hong by Tom Phillips, The Guardian, 30 June 2017)

The British foreign office can protest all it likes. As JV Stalin memorably put it, the logic of facts is stronger than any other logic. The treaties by which Britain once exercised control over Hong Kong were unequal treaties imposed by force of arms. They are therefore illegal and invalid.

The joint declaration between Britain and China on the future of Hong Kong existed simply to help ensure a smooth transition, not to mention to save Britain’s face. As such, it has served its purpose. The affairs of Hong Kong are a matter for the Chinese people and the Chinese people alone.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Ireland’s greatest working-class leader James Connolly, speaking about his own country at his court martial in 1916: the British government has no right, never had any right and never can have any right in any part of China.

As President Xi Jinping reminded people in his speech at a welcoming dinner in Hong Kong on 30 June: “The moving occasion of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland in 1997, like a long-separated child coming back to the warm embrace of his mother, is still vivid in our memory.

“We still recall the solemn ceremony of the transfer of government in Hong Kong, the playing of the stirring national anthem of the People’s Republic of China and the raising of the national flag of the People’s Republic of China and the regional flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. We still recall the joy and excitement of Hong Kong people who cheered the processions of the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison despite downpours.

“And we still recall the festive celebrations across China, where people were singing and dancing to hail Hong Kong’s return. These historical scenes have become a part of the collective memory of all the Chinese people.”

And President Xi added: “We should have confidence in ourselves. We Chinese are a great people. Our time-honoured 5,000-year civilisation is the only ancient civilisation that has survived with no interruption.

“For a great part of recorded history, the Chinese nation led the world in economic, scientific, cultural, art and other fields, and contributed much to the progress of human civilisation. China lagged behind other countries in modern times, but that has changed since the founding of New China in 1949.

“The Chinese nation, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and thanks to dedicated efforts of the Chinese people of several generations, has proudly taken its place among the nations of the world.” (Full text of speech by President Xi Jinping at welcome dinner in HK, Xinhua, 30 June 2017)

In a subsequent speech the next day, Xi added: “The destiny of Hong Kong has always been intricately bound with that of the motherland.

“After modern times, with a weak China under corrupt and incompetent feudal rule, the Chinese nation was plunged into deep suffering. In the early 1840s, Britain sent an expeditionary force of a mere 10,000 troops to invade China and got its way in forcing the Qing government, which had an 800,000-strong army, to pay reparations and cede the island of Hong Kong to it.

“After the Opium War, China was repeatedly defeated by countries which were far smaller in size and population. Kowloon and the ‘New Territories’ were forcibly taken away. That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow.

“It was not until the Communist Party of China led the Chinese people to victory in a dauntless and tenacious struggle for national independence and liberation and founded New China that the Chinese people truly stood up and blazed a bright path of socialism.”

And he explained the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ in its correct context: “It is imperative to have a correct understanding of the relationship between ‘one country’ and ‘two systems’.

“‘One country’ is like the roots of a tree. For a tree to grow tall and luxuriant, its roots must run deep and strong. The concept of ‘one country, two systems’ was advanced, first and foremost, to realise and uphold national unity.

“That is why in the negotiations with the United Kingdom, we made it categorically clear that sovereignty is not for negotiation. Now that Hong Kong has returned to China, it is all the more important for us to firmly uphold China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.

“In conducting day-to-day affairs, we must be guided by a strong sense of one country, firmly observe the principle of one country, and thus correctly handle the relationship between the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and the central government.

“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the basic law of the HKSAR, or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible.” (Full Text: Xi’s speech at meeting marking HK’s 20th return anniversary, inaugural ceremony of 5th-term HKSAR government, Xinhua, 1 July 2017)

Proletarian and the CPGB-ML share the joy of the Chinese people and the People’s Republic on the 20th anniversary of their recovery of Hong Kong. Not only is this our internationalist duty – as Deng Xiaoping pointedly put it to Thatcher back in 1982, ending British colonial rule is also a contribution to our own people.