Tea Leaf Nation

London’s Hong Kong Blunder

How the United Kingdom lost the loyalty of the island city's people.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Thirty years ago this autumn, the United Kingdom and China agreed to negotiate the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, after 142 years of British control.

The news lifted Hong Kong’s then-anxious stock and property markets and renewed the city’s profitable mandate as a primary gateway to China. The colonial power and the future Communist Party-led sovereigns together pledged that the territory would be allowed to keep its freewheeling way of life, open press, and transparent legal system, all under a highly autonomous local government.

It hasn’t worked out exactly as promised. Business leaders who challenge China come under financial pressure. Journalists critical of Beijing have been attacked. The local government’s autonomy is undermined by very public pronouncements by Beijing’s representatives in the city. 

There are many reasons this has transpired, of course, but one largely lost to history deserves illumination: three years before signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong in 1984, which laid out the broad terms of Hong Kong’s transfer and its governance thereafter, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave up the greatest leverage London had to ensure China’s promises were kept. The consequences of that preemptive blunder are evident today in the massive popular protests on the streets of Hong Kong.

The leverage Britain abandoned was the most powerful it had: the loyalty and citizenship of the city’s people. It was they, after all, whose imagination, diligence, and perseverance carved a spectacular global port city out of a rugged subtropical coastline in a few generations. First factories, then banks and shipping companies; today finance, fashion, and retail businesses — all powered by its people. 

Yet in 1981, facing an abysmal economy and xenophobic pressures at home in the U.K., Mrs. Thatcher’s government enacted the British Nationality Act. At a stroke, it rescinded most of its Hong Kong citizens’ right of abode in the United Kingdom. (It did the same for residents of other far-flung British possessions, causing some Argentine generals to doubt London’s commitment to the Falkland Islands; war followed.)

British diplomats say that China never would have agreed to allow the residents of Hong Kong to maintain their British nationalities, once the territory was returned. But that has never been the point: the point is that Britain preemptively gave up the chance to unilaterally grant Hong Kong people who had been born as British citizens the continuing right of U.K. abode after 1997. 

It isn’t difficult to imagine how different the dynamic in negotiations with the Chinese might have been had they known that Hong Kong’s people could move away from the territory if China mismanaged it after regaining sovereignty. 

In the run-up to the handover, Hong Kong and Chinese officials drafted and approved the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that sets out the terms of Hong Kong’s political development. No longer faced by the possibility that Hong Kong’s residents could abandon the territory if their interests weren’t protected, drafters wrote the law in a way that suited China and acquiescent local leaders, not necessarily any democratic inclinations of Hong Kong’s people. 

Today, the protesters of Occupy Central in Hong Kong — a major group behind the demonstrations that’s demanding a fully democratic system for selecting the territory’s top leader — must face the reality that the Basic Law doesn’t exactly promise what Occupy seeks. Instead, it says that Hong Kong’s next head of government, the Chief Executive, should be elected from among candidates chosen by a "broadly representative" nominating committee. That, Beijing says, is what it is proposing to implement, using its own judgment to determine what is representative.

We can stipulate that China, which surely holds sway over any decisions regarding the current protests, is acting loutish and even recklessly in Hong Kong. It is inevitable in lowest-common-denominator decision-making, the only sort possible in a system where politically risk-averse bureaucrats agree most easily on policies that result in the least change and preserve the most control.

But it’s worth remembering that the seeds of trouble were planted a generation ago in London. 

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