Hong Kong’s “Unofficials” Begged Britain to Bargain Better with Beijing’s Communists

(p. C4) In the 1980s and 1990s, the political scientist Steve Tsang conducted dozens of interviews with industrialists, bankers and lawyers appointed as unofficial members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council or Executive Council. Known as the “Unofficials,” they were advisers to the British government. The British Official Secrets Act prevented them from speaking about the negotiations during their lifetimes, but the interviews restore a vital, often anguished Hong Kong voice to the historical record.

. . .

The Joint Declaration provided for Hong Kong to be handed back to China in 1997 with its capitalist system intact and a Chinese pledge that its way of life should continue for 50 years. Hong Kong was to hold elections for its Legislative Council and chief executive, but there was no clear timeline for democracy or mechanism to ensure Chinese compliance. “If we cannot devise the right political system, then Hong Kong may not survive,” Chung warned, telling the British that “the Chinese concept of an agreement was worthless.”

Thatcher’s response to them, in January 1984, was frosty: “The Chinese could walk into Hong Kong at present but had not done so. We had to negotiate with the cards that we possessed.” . . .

In June, Chung traveled to Beijing with two other Unofficials to express their concerns directly to Deng Xiaoping: that in the future Hong Kong might be governed from Beijing instead of being administered by Hong Kongers; that Chinese officials might not accept Hong Kong’s lifestyle; and that China’s future leaders might follow “extreme left policies.”

. . .

Would it have made any difference if more attention had been paid to the Unofficials? In 2019, as protests roiled the city, I put this question to Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten. “I think it might have done, actually,” he said. He recalled that British policy in the 1980s “was driven by officials with only the most vestigial, shadowy input from ministers. The Cradocks and others, they didn’t listen to people in Hong Kong. They knew what Hong Kong required, and what Hong Kong, they thought, required was whatever would be acceptable with China for a quiet life.”

The dominant narrative in the British press in the run-up to the handover in 1997 was one of an honorable retreat. The Unofficials tell a different story: One of political expediency that set in motion the foreseeable—and foreseen—unraveling of one of the world’s greatest cities.

For the full essay, see:

Louisa Lim. “The Unofficial Story of the Handover of Hong Kong.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 23, 2022): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date April 22, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay is adapted from Lim’s book:

Lim, Louisa. Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong. New York: Riverhead Books, 2022.

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