1997: did it have to be this way?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 April, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 April, 1993, 12:00am

THE END OF HONGKONG By Robert Cottrell (John Murray, $150) SO, how did we get into this mess? Did Hongkong really have to return to Chinese rule? How was the deal done? Robert Cottrell untangles the complicated web surrounding the negotiations which led to China's resumption of sovereignty over Hongkong with suchskill that this work sometimes reads with the ease of a thriller.

Unlike a thriller, which builds to an uncertain climax, the result of the secret diplomacy which led to Hongkong's transfer of power is very clearly known. The Union Jack will come down at the stroke of midnight on June 30, 1997 and the red flag, emblazoned with its five stars, will rise.

Was it always going to be so? Mr Cottrell, based in Hongkong from 1982 to 1988 as correspondent for Britain's Financial Times and The Independent , suggests that it was. However, like many others who have studied this subject, he has been unable to get sufficiently close to Chinese sources to provide a definitive answer.

Nevertheless, he pinpoints the period around Christmas, 1981, as the time when ''the decision in principle to proceed with the resumption of Hongkong was probably taken''.

My own view is that the die was cast during the historic visit to Beijing in March 1979 of the then Governor, Sir Murray MacLehose. As usual the people of Hongkong were kept in the dark about what transpired during Sir Murray's meeting with China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and were actively misled about its outcome. The Governor tried to get the great man to agree on a proposal to allow land leases in the New Territories to be renewed after 1997, while leaving aside the question of sovereignty over the colony as a whole. The old warrior, not known for his subtlety, totally missed the point of Sir Murray's remarks, suspected another devious British ploy and responded by launching into a sterling defence of China's sovereign rights and determination toassert them by bringing the colony back to the motherland.

Here, Mr Cottrell explains the Brits, who genuinely thought it would be possible to do some sort of deal under which Britain would cede sovereignty but retain its administration over Hongkong, had forced China's hand. Whether Beijing was going to take back the colony in any case, remains an open question.

The main British defence of its bungled handling of the matter comes from some of the principal players who claim that they had to act because they were under pressure from businessmen worried about the fate of the property market if the leases' questionwas not resolved.

However, Mr Cottrell's diligent research exposes this apologia for what it is. He found that property prices were rising faster in the New Territories than elsewhere at the time. Moreover, that ever-reliable weather bell of business sentiment, the Hang Seng Index, was busy surging upwards.

Hardly an indication of concern. So why did Sir Murray, advised by David Wilson, later to become Governor and strongly encouraged by Edward Youde, another Governor-in-waiting, do it? Mr Cottrell is generous in examining their motives, showing how the bureaucratic imperative spurred on these men to try and tie up loose ends which they thought would become seriously frayed if allowed to dangle.

There is, as ever, some irony in the history of how the troublesome 99-year lease on the New Territories came about. Hongkong people will give a wry smile when reminded by Mr Cottrell that the man responsible for the extension of British territory in Hongkong, was Sir Claude MacDonald, the British Minister in Beijing, who knew very little about China but a great deal about Africa.

Uninhibited by studies in Chinese sensibility he set out with single-minded determination to execute his master's desire for an extension to Britain's modest holdings in Chinese soil. Sir Claude succeeded but was almost careless in accepting a 99-lease on the New Territories rather than the more permanent arrangement which prevailed elsewhere in the colony.

Today Hongkong has a Governor who is also accused of knowing or caring little about Chinese sensitivities but also has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve. Mr Patten wants to end Britain's colonial odyssey in China with honour and bequeath a system of government which stands some chance of perpetuating the way of life which has made Hongkong such a success.

China sees darker motives at play here, believing that the democracy plans are a subtle plot to perpetuate British influence after sovereignty is relinquished.

As Mr Cottrell vividly demonstrates, China has always been suspicious of British motives. He reminds the reader that Beijing has also always wanted a far greater say in the colony's government during the transitional period.

As for the outgoing colonialists, they hardly managed to cover themselves in glory. The hand of Sir Percy Cradock (the former foreign policy adviser to prime minister Margaret Thatcher and ex-ambassador in Beijing) pops up frequently in these pages, usually at crucial points during the negotiations, when he urged further compromise and insisted on the disregard of Hongkong views.

Little wonder that this formidable retired civil servant is now making himself liberally available to denounce Britain's new and uncharacteristically firm policy in dealing with China.

Mr Cottrell also detects a reasonably high level of hypocrisy in the way that the British conducted the handover negotiations. ''Britain would not be able to argue,'' he writes, ''that an eventual settlement was the ''best possible'' deal that could everhave been achieved with China unless a modicum of blood had been - metaphorically - spilt in the negotiating of it.'' So Britain and China entered into a marathon ritual of negotiations culminating in the Joint Declaration, an agreement hailed with extraordinary enthusiasm when it was finalised in 1984. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that this treaty is far from complete, its gaping holes allowing much to fall through.

I am frequently asked if I can recommend a ''really good book about Hongkong''. They are surprisingly few in number. The End of Hongkong , however, fits the bill admirably.

Steve Vines is the Hongkong correspondent for Britain's Guardian newspaper and presenter of Today in Legco.