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The Guest Column

30th March 1997

Hong Kong returning to China

by Stanley Kalpage

D-Day - 30 June 1997

A crucial event of 1997 will be the return of Hong Kong to China at midnight on June 30 after over 150 years of British rule. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of December 19 1984, Britain agreed to restore Hong Kong to China on that date while China pledged to grant Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” and to maintain intact Hong Kong’s freedoms and capitalist way of life for 50 years.

With just 13 weeks to go before the British colony of Hong Kong (population 6.4 million) returns to China’s fold, Beijing has announced plans to dismantle its legislature and roll back civil liberties. This has led to an ugly row in the wealthy community of 6.3 million people, 98 percent of whom are Chinese. Britain argues that the formation of the Provisional Legislature set up by Beijing is reversing reforms brought in by British Governor Chris Patten and that this is illegal in terms of the joint Declaration.

A British colony

Hong Kong constitutes a group of 235 islands together with a chunk of the mainland bordering the Peoples’ Republic of China’s Guangdong province.

Britain wrested Hong Kong from China in the mid-19th century opium wars. Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Nangking in 1842, the Kowloon Peninsula by the 1860 Convention of Peking, and the rural, New Territories and 235 islands under a 99-year lease in 1898.

Until the 1950s, apart from the Japanese military occupation of 1941-45, Hong Kong was mainly a staging post and trans-shipment centre for trade between China and the West. However, with the 1950s Korean War and a UN embargo on strategic goods to China, most of this trade was cut off and Hong Kong became a manufacturing centre.

A thriving economy since the 1970s, Hong Kong has changed from a manufacturing-based to a service-based economy. Britain established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972. Some time after the death of Mao Zedong, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping received the then Hong Kong governor, Sir Murray Maclehose, when the latter raised the issue of the end of the lease in Hong Kong. Talks between Britain and China on the handing over of Hong Kong began in 1982, when China made it known that it was intent on resuming sovereignty over the entire territory.

One country - two systems

Deng Xiaoping is credited with having evolved the formula, “one country - two systems” for finding a way out of the dispute with Britain on returning Hong Kong to China. Hong Kong money and Deng’s reforms in China have narrowed the gulf between Hong Kong and southern China. Instead, Hong Kong and China prospered in tandem. About 1000 Hong Kong businesses are already controlled by Chinese state-owned companies; in 1992 the number was only 400. In China, 3 million Chinese are employed in 25,000 Hong Kong company-owned factories - six times the number of employees the companies have in Hong Kong. Shenzhen - the Chinese city of 2.7 million on the border of the New Territories of Hong Kong, now boasts a GDP per capita of nearly US $6,000.

Beijing looks ahead

Moves and counter moves have marked the relations between Britain and Hong Kong after the December 1984 Declaration signed between Margaret Thatcher and then Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang.

In 1990, China proclaimed the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s post-1997 mini-constitution. Two years later, in 1992, Governor Chris Patten launched electoral reforms in Hong Kong and China denounced the move. In 1993, China set up a Preliminary Working Committee to shape Hong Kong’s first post-1997 administration.

In 1996, a Provisional Council was set in place to govern Hong Kong to take over from British Governor Chris Patten. A pro-China Selection Committee, carefully screened by Beijing, picked the Provisional Council amidst demonstrations in Hong Kong protesting against the creation of the parallel legislature, arguing that the existing legislative council is sufficient. Meanwhile, the Selection Committee chose Tung Chee-hwa, a Hong Kong shipping billionaire, in preference to former Chief Justice Ti Liang, for the post of chief executive-designate (post-takevoer governor). Tung is the most visible symbol of the new Hong Kong.

Britain fights rear-guard action

Britain has Challenged China to go to the International Court of Justice to prove the legality of the interim legislature. Moreover, in January 1997, China announced plans to repeal many of Hong Kong’s civil liberties laws introduced by Governor Patten after he became Governor of Hong Kong in 1992. China rejects the criticism by Britain and the US of her moves and says that Hong Kong is an internal affair.

The new Hong Kong - a part of China

On July 1 1997, a new Hong Kong is being born - a Chinese Hong Kong - which may not fit western standards, and which the West may not be comfortable with. However, the West must now look at Hong Kong with a new pair of lenses, seeing it as a part of China, not as some Western outpost taken back by China. For Hong Kong, China is a new master.

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