1970s files show projects to thaw HK-Beijing chill

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

Proposals to build a new airport and a nuclear power plant serving Hong Kong from north of the Shenzhen River were first made well before China and Britain began negotiating the handover of the colony in the 1970s, in attempts to improve the relationship between the two sides.

The two ambitious plans, presented by some of Hong Kong's most influential figures at the time, have been revealed in secret files recently declassified by Britain's National Archives in London.

In 1980, Chung Sze-yuen, then the most senior Chinese member of Hong Kong's Executive Council, raised with British officials the idea of building an airport on the Chinese side of the border, in the hope of fostering closer ties with Beijing.

Six years earlier, Lawrence Kadoorie, who was then chairman of China Light & Power, came up with the idea of building a nuclear power station on the mainland, to build trust between the colony and Beijing.

Kadoorie's plan, which was not made public at the time, came a decade ahead of Beijing's approval in 1983 of the Daya Bay nuclear project, the 1,968 MW power station just east of Shenzhen that now sells 70 per cent of its output to Hong Kong.

These proposals were made in the late 1970s, at a time when the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing remained frosty as the city began to fret over its future beyond 1997, when Britain's 99-year lease on the New Territories would expire.

Chung and Kadoorie understood that Hong Kong's fortunes would be intertwined with those of the mainland and that imaginative ways were needed to engage the communist neighbour in the city's long-term interests.

According to a report compiled by Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in July 1980, Chung 'thought that there were strong arguments for considering an airport on the Chinese side of the border, for political reasons'.

Veteran politician Allen Lee Peng-fai, who is close to Chung, said Chung had confirmed that he had raised the idea with British officials who visited Hong Kong at the time.

Chung, the highest-ranking Chinese member of Exco from 1980 to 1988, suggested the planned airport could be jointly used by Hong Kong and the mainland. Hong Kong and mainland travellers would use different arrival/departure halls.

'Chung also proposed that the Hong Kong government foot the bill for constructing the airport. At that time, China was a poor country with only a small amount of foreign reserves,' said Lee, who was a lawmaker from 1978 to 1998.

Chung, Exco's convenor under Tung Chee-hwa's administration from 1997 to 1999, broached the idea of an airport a year after Hong Kong governor Murray MacLehose talked with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in March 1979.

During that historic talk, Deng left open the options of taking back Hong Kong in 1997 or allowing the status quo to continue after the expiry of the New Territories lease.

'But Chung's idea [for an airport on the mainland side of the border] died a natural death, as apparently the British government was not interested,' Lee said.

In 1974, Kadoorie came up with the idea of a nuclear power plant north of the border when he made the proposal to British officials Kenneth Wilford and Edward Youde, who became governor in 1982.

In a telegram sent to MacLehose in August 1974, Wilford, who was then the FCO's deputy undersecretary of state, noted that Kadoorie wanted to 'see the building of a nuclear power station as part of the process of accommodation between Hong Kong and China'.

'He mentioned the possibility of exporting power to China, but he seems to have begun his thinking from the position that China might well feel upstaged by Hong Kong in that Hong Kong had got a nuclear power station before China had,' Wilford wrote.

'Therefore, I think, that if Kadoorie had any choice in the matter he would much prefer to have seen the power station built in China and exporting power to Hong Kong. He hankers after using the power station as a means of easing the colony's future relationship with China,' the British official wrote.

When Kadoorie conceived his idea, China was still plagued by the upheavals wrought by the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976.

Kadoorie's dream came true in 1983, when Beijing approved the Daya Bay nuclear project in Guangdong, just east of Shenzhen, a year before the joint Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong's handover was announced.

Michael Kadoorie, CLP Power's current chairman, said his father had always believed in encouraging dialogue with the mainland.

'With respect to the nuclear power station, my understanding is that the Chinese authorities came to my father and he certainly encouraged involvement as he believed that working together would build trust between the two sides, which must augur well for future relationships between the mainland and Hong Kong,' he said.

'Clearly, the Hong Kong government was involved but I have no knowledge of the dialogue that may have taken place at that time [in 1974].'

CLP's involvement with Daya Bay dates back to 1979, when a feasibility study was jointly conducted with Guangdong General Power. The study recommended two pressurised water reactors be built at Daya Bay.

In 1985, Hong Kong Nuclear Investment, a wholly owned subsidiary of CLP, and Guangdong Nuclear Investment formed Guangdong Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co to build and operate the Daya Bay facility.

Guangdong Nuclear Investment owns 75 per cent, while Hong Kong Nuclear Investment has the remaining 25 per cent of the company.