Six degrees | South China Morning Post
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  • Apr 2, 2015
  • Updated: 6:26pm

Six degrees

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am

Today, as you may possibly have heard, is the 15th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule (below). Although the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 marked the point at which both sides put their cards on the table, the seeds of what would eventually become the handover were first sown when the issue of the city's sovereignty was raised on his first official visit to Beijing, in 1979, by then-governor Murray MacLehose ...

MacLehose, the man who among other things made Chinese an official language in Hong Kong and bequeathed us the Independent Commission Against Corruption, was quite the establishment figure. Before arriving in Hong Kong, the career civil servant had been British ambassador to Denmark, and before that Vietnam. Baron MacLehose of Beoch, as he became, also attended Oxford University and another bastion of the British ruling class, Rugby School, also the alma mater of former prime minister Neville Chamberlain, poet Matthew Arnold and author Salman Rushdie ...

It's hard to know how Rushdie's writings have caused such offence, given that no one has managed to get to the end of one of his novels. But cause offence they most certainly have, most famously when his depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in 1988 novel The Satanic Verses resulted in a fatwa calling for the author to be killed issued by the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ...

As a leader, the Ayatollah was a curious mixture of mystic and strongman, summing up his style when, for example, he warned opponents: 'I repeat for the last time: abstain from holding meetings, from blathering, from publishing protests. Otherwise I will break your teeth.' His desire to break more than Rushdie's teeth, however, was thwarted, at least in part because the writer was given protection by the British government, at that point headed by someone who had come to power in the same year as Khomeini, 1979: Margaret Thatcher ...

Not one to be easily cowed, Thatcher frequently blasted the European Union over alleged incursions on British sovereignty; sent aircraft carriers and a nuclear submarine to defend islands sustaining just 3,000 people; and repeatedly excoriated the leadership of the Soviet Union, earning her the 'Iron Lady' nickname from a Russian journalist after a speech in which she somewhat surrealistically said the leaders in Moscow 'put guns before butter'. She met her match, however, when she flew to Beijing in 1982 to meet Deng Xiaoping ...

On the prickly political matter they were discussing, Deng was not prepared to give Thatcher what she wanted. A skilled and uncompromising negotiator, he also had the advantage of knowing there was pretty much nothing the British government could do to stop him. The prickly political matter they were discussing, of course, was the return of Hong Kong to China.


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