MacLehose thought of SAR idea 11 years before Deng's plan
More than a decade before Deng Xiaoping put forward the 'one country, two systems' formula, former governor Murray MacLehose had conceived the idea of a 'special administrative region' for Hong Kong when Britain surrendered the city's sovereignty to Beijing.
In a note sent to Britain's Foreign Office in October 1971, contained in recently declassified documents from Britain's National Archives, he said the best way forward for Hong Kong, whose future had been on the British government's agenda since the late 1960s, was to turn the city into a 'special administrative district'.
'For my part, I think the best we could hope for would be some form of special status for Hong Kong under which sovereignty would return to China, but Hong Kong might be defined as a special administrative district to be managed in a way that would facilitate the continued residence of foreigners,' he wrote.
In a report to the then British foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1972, MacLehose said Chinese leaders might 'see merit in some continuing arrangement for Hong Kong whereby a special regime was established that nominally removed the colonial stigma'.
He said the formula could preserve for China 'some of the economic and political benefits of the present status, save them for having to absorb a population with some different standard of living and attitude of mind, and preserve for foreigners a tolerable trading base while concentrating them in a single area where they did not affect life in the rest of China'.
'It could perform the service which Shanghai might have done if the CPG [Central People's Government] in the early days of their power had not squeezed the foreigners out, and it could avoid the problems the CPG experienced in absorbing that cosmopolitan and volatile population,' the governor wrote.
The social reform programme MacLehose introduced since his appointment in 1971 appeared to be part of the strategy to achieve such a deal on the future of the colony.
MacLehose, who raised the thorny issue of Hong Kong's future with Deng during a visit to Beijing in 1979, wrote that the more developed the colony the more attractive the idea of a 'special regime' might appear to the Chinese leadership.
'I think that [the social reform] is the best contribution the Hong Kong government can make to achieving a satisfactory settlement, and for this it would need about 10 years.'
MacLehose's case for a 'special administrative district' was made 11 years before the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher lobbied Deng in 1982 to accept the formula of exchanging the sovereignty of Hong Kong in return for continued British administration after the lease of the New Territories expired in 1997.
In the 1972 report to Douglas-Home, MacLehose suggested a strategy of playing for time - about 10 to 15 years - which would fit in well with what he envisaged as the 'domestic strategy' for Hong Kong, though he admitted that the British government would have to negotiate with Beijing on Hong Kong's future 'sometimes in the 1980s'. 'It holds out the best prospect for the least unsatisfactory arrangement with China on the long-term future of HK,' he wrote.
Former chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones, working under MacLehose during his governorship, said the documents showed what a perceptive and far-sighted man the former governor was. 'He wrote of a special administrative region when we were not to hear these words for many years to come - he presages the outcome of the Joint Declaration by more than a decade,' Sir David said.