Was it a mistake for Britain to handover Hong Kong?

The Chinese flag is raised by People's Liberation Army soldiers at the handover ceremony in Hong Kong on July 1, 1997
The Chinese flag is raised by People's Liberation Army soldiers at the handover ceremony in Hong Kong on July 1, 1997

July 1st marked 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong from British rule back to China. In many ways, the handover was an extraordinary and poignant moment – not least for the people of Hong Kong, who were placed into the care of a one-party authoritarian communist state. For many, the handover was also an emblematic representation of the end of the British empire.

Britain’s acquisition of the “barren rock” of Hong Kong in 1842 – after defeating China in the First Opium War – signified more than just the height of British imperial power, but also the ascent of the West. Britain bolstered its grip on Hong Kong in 1898, with the leasing of additional land, known as the New Territories, to enforce its control of the area. This, however, came with a promise to return them to China in 99 years.

It is undeniable that, under British rule, Hong Kong developed into one of the world’s foremost financial and business centres. British rule established institutions such as an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and a separate legislature providing Hong Kong with a unique status: it is the most prosperous part of China and the freest.

As the expiration of the initial lease loomed, Margaret Thatcher and the then Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping, signed the joint Sino-British declaration in 1984. This agreement between both countries outlined the provisions under which sovereignty would be handed back to China – and most importantly, provided a blueprint over how to reconcile the difference between China’s communist mainland and Hong Kong’s capitalist economy. This would be achieved through the principle of “one country, two systems”.

Whilst Hong Kong’s relative economic status within the Chinese economy has declined, the mainland Chinese government has become more, not less assertive

Within this, Hong Kong would be able to enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for the next 50 years to 2047. Indeed, the “two systems” worked better than many expected.

There were certainly plausible arguments in favour of returning Hong Kong to China in 1997: Hong Kong was needed as a port, an aviation hub and centre for foreign investment. Today, however, the ports of Shanghai, Ningbo and Shenzhen all ship more containers than Hong Kong – and whilst Hong Kong’s relative economic status within the Chinese economy has declined, the mainland Chinese government has become more, not less assertive.

Two systems, converging
In recent years, China seems less committed to the Sino-British agreement, exacerbating the innate anxieties held by the people of Hong Kong over the preservation of its democratic institutions and their individual liberty. Such anxieties, fuelled by subtle changes to Hong Kong’s political culture (“mainlandisation” as some describe it) and growing intrusion by the Chinese state, culminated in the recent student-led “umbrella revolution” protests in 2014, which called for – among other things – the right to elect Hong Kong’s “Chief Executive”. To illustrate the point, in 2015, Chinese secret police abducted a bookseller to the mainland for selling “politically sensitive” books.

The insidious erosion of democracy is not the only concern held by the people of Hong Kong. Identity is also a key factor at play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent survey by Hong Kong University found that only 3.1 percent of young people identity as “Chinese” or “broadly Chinese”.

The empire strikes back?
Let’s be clear: this is not a call for a return to British rule. Nor is it an attempt to legitimise or glorify Britain’s broader imperial legacy. The essential question that must be asked is not whether the handover of Hong Kong was, in itself, a mistake. Rather, whether the mistake lay more in the way in which Hong Kong was handed over.

More specifically, the failure to consult the people of Hong Kong by means of a sovereignty referendum. Or, moreover, whether the real mistake lay in not allowing Hong Kong to have become a sovereign nation in its own right.

That said, reframing the question in this respect only serves to highlight the central paradox of the Hong Kong handover: Britain, often considered as one of the oldest democracies in the world, handed over Hong Kong to arguably one of the last great authoritarian communist powers in the world – without consulting the people of Hong Kong.

The jury is still out as to whether handing over sovereignty of Hong Kong to China was the right decision

The last British Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Pattern, recently ceded that after the handover, Britain “should have been much more active in pushing the case for democracy, or a faster pace of democratisation in Hong Kong”.

The jury is still out as to whether handing over sovereignty of Hong Kong to China was the right decision. As always, history will be the ultimate judge. Or more specifically, after 2047: the date at which China is no longer obligated to grant Hong Kong the autonomy it agreed upon before the handover.

Whilst the Chinese government’s intention towards Hong Kong remains ambiguous, one thing is clear: with an increasingly activist, politicised and liberal younger generation, the political battle for Hong Kong’s future status is just beginning.

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